Reflections on “Voracious Science, Vulnerable Animals” by John P. Gluck

PRIM&R invited members of our Emerging Professionals Working Group (EPWG) to write about topics of relevance to their work and to the research ethics community. We hope these posts open conversations among research ethics oversight professionals at all points in their careers.

By Carolyn Neuhaus, PhD

Voracious Science, Vulnerable Animals is Dr. John Gluck’s account of his transformation from primate researcher to animal research ethicist. It challenges readers to consider the “voracious” pursuit of new discoveries in biomedical research, the justification for using primates and other animals in that pursuit, and the role of IACUCs in promoting ethical animal use.

Gluck recalls learning quickly as a young scientist that “research progress had the highest priority, and my nonresearch life was irrelevant” (43). In a chapter titled “Induction,” Gluck describes joining a prestigious group of primate researchers at Harry Harlow’s University of Wisconsin laboratory in the 1960s and recounts some troubling instances of animal mistreatment. These early anecdotes, if read on their own, do not tell of the important advances that those involved in the research enterprise have accomplished since the 1960s or the respect for animals that most scientists bring to their work. Furthermore, critics of the book might point out that the laboratory conditions that Gluck describes in these chapters are a thing of the past. But rather than simply serving to expose historical abuses of animals, I think Gluck’s anecdotes were intended to expose the surprising ease with which he, and others, consistently put research ahead of all else—ahead of personal relationships, social life, and especially ahead of animal welfare. What mattered most, Gluck abashedly admits, was producing data, proving one’s hypothesis, amassing publications, and reaching the next career milestone. Thus, the book should spur reflection on factors that continue to incentivize “sloppy science” at the expense of animals’ lives.

Later chapters of the book provide a refreshingly honest account of grappling with central philosophical problems in animal ethics, and Gluck’s discussion of debates surrounding animal rights is particularly notable for its clarity. The last chapters defend the IACUC system as the best, if imperfect and inherently limited, way to protect research animals, as Gluck learned from personal experience as an IACUC chair. These chapters laud the rise of legislation to protect research animals and the infrastructure put in place to enforce protections that improve animal welfare. At the same time, Gluck acknowledges there is more work to be done: he explicitly calls for a “Belmont report for animals” to outline a basic set of ethical principles that applies to all research involving animals as well as enhanced ethics education for those that use animals in their research. And Gluck’s calls are not empty; since he turned from researcher to research ethicist in the 1990s, he has promoted thinking about the moral dimensions of animal use and educated researchers through his activism and scholarship.

Gluck ends optimistically, urging those concerned with animal welfare to participate in IACUCs. Despite their limitations, Gluck retains an “underlying faith in the potential of the IACUC system to encourage serious thinking about animal welfare and treatment” (269). In their deliberations, correspondence with investigators, and educational outreach, IACUC members and staff promote deeper thinking about animal use in the name of science, and in so doing, protect vulnerable animals. Conferences like PRIM&R’s annual IACUC conference and PRIM&R’s educational resources bring us closer to realizing IACUC’s potential. So, too, does Dr. Gluck’s book.  

Carolyn Neuhaus, PhD, is a member of PRIM&R’s Emerging Professionals Working Group. She is a Research Scholar at the Hastings Center, having recently completed the Rudin postdoctoral fellowship in the NYU School of Medicine’s Division of Medical Ethics.