Time Capsule Tuesday: Unsound science is unethical

At a 1985 PRIM&R meeting titled IACUCs & the Ethics of Animal Research: A Conference on Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees, David Britt, PhD, addressed the question of whether animal care and use committees can evaluate animal use proposals without considering scientific merit. Britt, then a research associate in the department of veterinary parasitology at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, argued they cannot. He reasoned:

“Unsound science is unethical. If the research does not engender suffering or squander precious resources, this may be unimportant, but very little biomedical research avoids both of these. If all research projects to be reviewed ethically are evaluated elsewhere for their scientific merit, so that the soundness of the science is not in doubt, I still believe that there is reason to consider the science again in the ethical review. Welfare considerations and ethical considerations are one side of the ethical equation. Scientific merit and potential value of the project to society are the other. Both must be taken into account in any rational evaluation.

Scientific merit, for me, involves both the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of research. The ‘why’ is clearly of vital importance.  It will modify the cost-benefit equation and may increase the allowable costs in terms of animal distress or suffering. Many of the animal welfare problems will be associated with the ‘how’—the methodology of research. If it is outside the remit of the committees to discuss this, then they become very toothless structures indeed. The committees should be able to recommend modifications to methodology, aimed at reducing the costs to the experimental subjects.”

The debate in which Britt engaged is one that continues today. The eighth edition of the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, which was officially adopted by the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare in December 2011, emphasizes the IACUC’s obligation “to weigh the objectives of the study against the potential animal welfare concerns.”

This revision has pushed the topic of scientific merit review and harm/benefit analysis back to the forefront of the animal care and use communities’ attention. PRIM&R will once again engage in this conversation at the 2013 IACUC Conference during Panel I – Practical Strategies for Conducting Harm/Benefit Analysis of Animal Research on Monday, March 18 from 9:00 to 10:00 AM.