Creating a Culture of Welfare from the Contributions of Individuals

By Angela Craig, DVM, lab animal veterinarian and IACUC member, University of Minnesota

PRIM&R is pleased to share a post from Angela Craig, a member of the PRIM&R Blog Squad for the 2015 Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) Conference. The PRIM&R Blog Squad is composed of PRIM&R members who will blog here, on Ampersand, to give our readers an inside peek of what happened at the conference in Boston, MA.

Every IACUC is charged with the responsibility of analyzing the potential harm experienced by animals in the course of research versus the benefit to society of that research. Though IACUC members understand this is an essential component of protocol review, and our regulations dictate its importance, actual implementation can feel nebulous. Are we doing enough? Are our discussions robust? I attended the session The Analysis of Harm vs. Benefit at the 2015 IACUC Conference to learn more about how to effectively contribute to the discussion and ensure best practices.
Scientists rely on method and proof to feel confident in their conclusions. Harm/benefit analysis is less concrete. Like many in the room, I had hoped to come away with a stepwise process for doing it right, but I quickly understood that there is no single road map. Rather, it is an art that takes practice, patience, and a commitment to continually educating oneself in the 3Rs of replacement, refinement, and reduction.  As stated in the session description, it is about creating a “culture of [animal] welfare” by promoting a “more rigorous harm/benefit review.”
This session was noted in the conference materials as using discussion as a learning method – and with good reason. Discussions about ethics require active participation from many voices to reveal the depth and breadth of the topic. Definitions of culture all contain the idea of group, society, or organization. Nowhere do they refer to the beliefs of a single individual, yet without the ideas, beliefs, and contributions of individuals, a culture will be inherently limited in scope. Many in the room contributed to the conversation, making it a good example of how it takes numerous people to create a culture of welfare.
Here are a few helpful ideas from our panelists Elizabeth Ford, DVM, MPVM, DACLAM, Adam Shriver, PhD, and Janet D. Stemwedel, PhD, and from generous attendees who shared during the session:

  • Think of harm as more than simply pain and distress, and benefit as more than just adding to the body of scientific knowledge. Do not be afraid to go back to a protocol to ask for refinement when new information is discovered. Be comfortable asking more questions. Use pilot studies if outcomes are unknown.
  • Be explicit in your discussion of harm vs. benefit and document it. It is much more than a check box.
  • Ethical judgment should be thought of as a design problem, not a math problem. Maximize the pros and minimize the cons. Accept that in some circumstances there may be no real “right” answers.
  • Use more than feeling to make decisions. Use evidence whenever possible.
  • Remember that IACUCs are products of their local community and are responsible to it. Educated, engaged non-affiliated/community members are critical to ensure discussions include a societal perspective.
  • As an IACUC, consider developing a list of basic principles related to harm/benefit analysis that will provide a foundation during difficult conversations.

Ultimately, we each have a personal responsibility for making harm/benefit analysis robust within our IACUCs. It is our ethical charge as a community, and by sharing ideas we benefit the animals relying on us to create a culture of welfare.