Can animal rights activists and research advocates engage in productive dialogue?

by Elisa Hurley, PhD, Education Director

Although some might argue that I’m biased, one of the things that I think is most special about PRIM&R as an organization is its desire always to acknowledge and respect the incredibly rich and varied history of the research ethics field.

PRIM&R’s conviction that honoring the field’s past is crucial to the field’s future was evident yesterday, when Andrew N. Rowan, PhD, chief scientific officer of the Human Society of the United States (HSUS) and President and CEO of the Humane Society International, delivered the Henry Spira Memorial Lecture at PRIM&R’s 2013 IACUC Conference in Baltimore, Maryland.


Titled A Beacon for Constructive Engagement and Disagreement in a Contentious World: What is the Dispute about Animal Research Really About? Dr. Rowan’s remarks began on a personal note with some warm reminiscing about, and a charming photograph of, his friend Henry Spira.  As many know, Henry Spira was a passionate animal rights activist, perhaps best known for leading a 12-month protest of a cat lab at the Museum of Natural History in 1976; as a result, the lab was shut down, a seminal event in the animal rights movement.

Dr. Rowan laid out Mr. Spira’s general prescription for a successful animal rights campaign, which included a number of precepts such as understanding public attitudes, setting achievable goals, changing behavior—not just awareness, not dividing the world into saints and sinners, and creating opportunities for dialogue with those on the other side.

Those who know Dr. Rowan and his professional history will recognize the influence on him of this last tenet. In 1983, Dr. Rowan and PRIM&R’s executive director Joan Rachlin launched the IACUC Conference to provide a forum for productive dialogue between the scientific research advocacy and animal research communities. Yet, Dr. Rowan expressed his disappointment that, three decades later, there hasn’t been more such dialogue, at least in the United States. In fact, he suggested that the US approach, unlike the approach in Europe, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, has been mostly characterized by confrontation, rather than conversation.

Nevertheless, Dr. Rowan’s core conviction remains that the research community and animal activists need to engage in such discussion and, more specifically, that the activist community has useful things to contribute. The rest of his talk seemed to suggest two things that the animal activist community can contribute to a productive discussion about the use of animals in research. The first is providing evidence to counterbalance the often unsubstantiated claims about the value of animal research that come out of research advocacy groups and get picked up, wholesale, by the media.  For example, Dr. Rowan cited evidence suggesting that animal models are predictive of human toxicities only about 70% of the time.

The second contribution that animal activists may make is to find and advocate for replacement opportunities, opportunities which are currently exploding, with the emergence of new, high-throughput technologies such as gene sequencing, stem cells, and systems biology. 

As I listened to Dr. Rowan’s eloquent remarks, I couldn’t help wondering whether his disappointment in the state of dialogue between animal activists and research advocates is overstated.  As he himself noted, lab animal use has decreased by 50% after its peak in the 1970s.  And there is no question—indeed, I heard it several times today, from research advocates, amongst others—that everyone, no matter which “side” they are on, would like to see the end of the use of animals in research.

What do you think?  Do you believe that we have a culture of confrontation, rather than of conversation, when it comes to differences of views about the use of animals in research?  If so, what strategies for change might you suggest?