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: animalresearch.thehastingscenter.org.

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. 

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

  1. Allyson J. Bennett

    Susan, thanks for writing about this session at PRIMR. It is certainly true that emotion plays a role in dialogue and discussion of animal research. A main point of my talk, however, was to emphasize that productive and progressive dialogue on this complex issue is best served by understanding science and bringing facts to the discussion. Being informed about the scientific process, the time scales in which research discoveries unfold, the need for very basic research, and many other complex issues is crucial. One thing that would greatly improve the discussion of animal research is better continuing education and understanding of the science. Scientists play an important role in providing information and education through their articles, teaching, and outreach. It is a two-way street though. Everyone involved in the dialogue shares the responsibility to become better informed about the range of issues involved in this complex area, including basic factual and conceptual information about the science. In absence of that understanding it is virtually impossible to consider the public interests in animal research because the true value of the work is not represented.

    As you note, there are many sources for solid information about animal research, public interests, and science. I'd also encourage anyone who is interested to use these resources to learn more. We have written about many of these issues at the Speaking of Research news blog. For ex – here is one on the basic process of moving from idea to study. http://speakingofresearch.com/2013/03/04/a-closer-look-at-how-animal-research-progresses-from-idea-to-study/

    1. Susan Gilbert

      Allyson, Thank you for your comment. I completely agree that productive and progressive dialogue is best served by understanding science and focusing on facts. We hope our animal research ethics website can help enable well-informed conversation. Our sense is that many people hold nuanced views — they care passionately about advancing medical knowledge and improving animal welfare. Becoming better informed is the first step toward reaching those goals. The Tox 21 effort to find non-animal — and more accurate — means of toxicology testing is an inspiring example of the possibilities.