Animal research ethics: New resources on science, values, and alternatives

by Susan Gilbert, Public Affairs and Communications Manager at The Hastings Center

A curious aspect of the debate over the use of animals in research is that the two “sides” see themselves as making different kinds of arguments when in fact they have some fundamental similarities. For example, a recent post in Ampersand discussed the line between emotions and fact in debates over the use of animals in research. It referred to the keynote speech given by Allyson Bennett, PhD, at the 2013 Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) Conference, which characterized animal rights groups as engaging in a “hearts and minds campaign” using imagery and rhetoric about animal suffering. That’s accurate, but it’s not the full story.

Animal activists also marshal facts and use them to make logical arguments. The same can be said of research advocates: they draw on facts and logic, but they also make emotional appeals to the lives saved because of the knowledge gained from animal experimentation.

Many of the educational resources about research with animals come from groups with distinct viewpoints, such as The Humane Society and the National Association for Biomedical Research. And while these materials are authoritative and helpful, my colleagues and I at The Hastings Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit bioethics research institute, see a need for resources not driven by advocacy.

We began by bringing together people with different views and areas of expertise for a workshop in November 2011 to discuss contemporary issues in research with animals. The group consisted of people on both sides of the debate. A fascinating exchange took place. A laboratory veterinarian argued that there is room for improvement in selecting animals for particular experiments. A laboratory scientist outlined a “paradigm shift” underway in toxicology testing, which aims to replace animals with more accurate alternative models (it turns out that rodents predict human toxicity only 43 percent of the time). A neuroscientist made the case that experiments with monkeys are essential to curing Parkinson’s disease, whereas an animal rights activist asserted that the value of nonhuman primates for research on human diseases is overstated. From this workshop, we created a special report of commentaries and a website:

The website is designed to be useful to multiple audiences, including members of IACUCs, students in biomedical research and law, and anyone else who is concerned with research ethics. It contains the special report and many other resources. There are fact sheets on animals used in research in the U.S. and alternatives to animal models. There is information on U.S. animal welfare laws, links to major recent reports on the scientific utility and ethics of animals in research, and a bibliography. In the interest of supporting civil and productive dialogue about using animals in research, we also included a glossary of terms on topics whose interpretation is sometimes contested. The glossary is interactive, allowing visitors to submit additional terms.

Given the heated nature of the debate over research with animals, it’s probably unrealistic to expect discourse to be free of emotions. But let’s find strategies that can help shift the focus to facts, foster respectful conversations, and move the debate forward. What can we do to improve the ethics of research with animals? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Susan Gilbert is the public affairs and communications manager of The Hastings Center. She was co-director of the Center’s project on animal research ethics.