Did the government spend $50 million (or more) to learn "how much monkeys love their mothers"?

From Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, Vol. 45(3), 193–218 Summer 2009:

It is also important to note that the agencies supporting Harlow’s research were interested in the human implications of his studies, as it became clear when public controversy erupted over the wisdom of providing federal support for his work. The debate ranged from West to East, from the humor pages of newspapers to prestigious scientific journals like Science , from the U.S. House of Representatives to the U.S. Senate. The first shot came in 1962 from Senator Harry Byrd. The press turned it into a national affair, as the Arizona Election News alerted the public that $50,000,000 of their hard-earned tax dollars had been used to “pay for studies to find out if baby monkeys love their mothers.” The alleged amounts varied in different newspapers, as did the assessments of Harlow’s research. In one cartoon the issue was put forward in graphic clarity. A monkey is represented asking another monkey nursing an infant about the national debt. The caption underneath read: “The new Frontier plans to spend $1,201,925.22 to study the affection of the monkey’s offspring.”

I remember the claim that "the government spent $50 million learning how much monkeys love their mothers" was widely circulated among ultra-consevative groups back in the early 60s (though I admit I don't recall what specific amount I heard claimed). The best "hard" reference I can find for the amount is MATERNAL DEPRIVATION : EXPERIMENTS IN PSYCHOLOGY -- A CRITIQUE OF ANIMAL MODELS which quotes a figure of $34 million, though it's Table IV states that the primate (vs dog, cat, and rodent) studies cost $20.4 million.

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    I think your question is badly phrased. There is a long and disreputable history of attacking science by trivialising it. One might equally attack Newton by suggesting his greatest discovery was "why apples fall out of trees". Harlow was investigating deep questions about the instincts and behavior of primates, which includes us. The text you quote alludes to this, but your question emphasises the attacks. Are you asking about the total bill, or are you asking if the "how much monkeys love their mothers" bit is valid? Commented Oct 22, 2017 at 17:00
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    @PaulJohnson - I'm asking about the total bill. I'm attempting to reconstruct a story from my early teen years (involving cognitive dissonance and "learning moments'), and I wanted to get the numbers right, as close as I could, and place them in perspective. Commented Oct 22, 2017 at 21:37

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This question is rather meaningless because surely Harry Harlow did not write on any of his federal grant requests "I want to find out if baby monkeys love their mothers".

So depending on one's political (and science) inclinations, one can (derisively) label almost the entire scientific career of Harry Harlow as "studying monkey love", in which case the claim might be true as he studied the social behavior of monkeys for at least 20 years--you're welcome try and add up all his grants. Given that that Harlow received the National Medal of Science and similar rewards and that he led various labs, ~$2.5M/year (say for a 20-year career) in grant money is not terribly outlandish or improbable.

The anti-vivisection advocacy document of Stephens that you've mentioned says

Separation experiments cost over $34.0 million to conduct (Table IV). Most of this money was provided by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Mental Health, as was the case with experiments in the deprivation category. Hence, U.S. taxpayers ultimately paid for most of this research.

But then a few pages later the same source has a new table (VI, yeah 6 not 4) which classifies 3 types of Harlow-like experiments: affection, depravation, and separation, for a total tag of $57 million across all subject categories.

The price tag of these experiments was over $57 million (Table VI). Virtually all of this money came from agencies of the federal government, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Mental Health. This indicates that taxpayers have unwittingly financed most of these experiments.

Since this is an advocacy document, it doesn't bother to make too clear whom exactly received those $57 million. The previous and subsequent paragraphs namedrop a few other scientists, so it might not have been Harlow alone whose grants they've totalled in those tables.

There's a slightly more clear perspective in Blum's book (Love at Goon Park, pp. 304-305)

Martin Stephens found that isolation work peaked between 1965 and 1972. In those seven years, more than one hundred studies isolating lab animals—not just monkeys but dogs and cats—were reported. The Harlow lab conducted nine of the studies cited by Stephens, which made it hard to argue that Harry was solely responsible for the whole world of mother-child separation experiments. Harry’s real sin, in Bekoff’s eyes, is that he gave the experiments a kind of power and legitimacy that keeps them going today.

So from that it's quite probable that Harlow only received a fraction of that money that Stephens tallied.

  • "~$2.5M/year (say for a 20-year career) in grant money is not terribly outlandish or improbable." Hmm. $2.5 million in 1962 dollars is about $21 million in 2020 dollars (source). And current NIH research grants have an average budget in the neighborhood of $600,000 per year (source). Maybe funding was better, or more concentrated, back in the 1960s, but without more justification this certainly looks like an outlier to say the least. Commented Apr 23, 2020 at 20:31
  • @NateEldredge: yeah, you're right, adjusted for inflation it was probably uncommon back then. But I think running a lab with monkeys probably gets better funding nowadays than $600K/year. He had a full-time operation with those monkeys. Commented Apr 23, 2020 at 22:29
  • ... in his own building if I remember Blum's book correctly (don't have it on hand right now anymore), although probably not as elaborate as en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primate_Research_Institute etc. are nowadays Commented Apr 23, 2020 at 22:34

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