From the Director: Transparency About Animal Research Ethics

Elisa Hurley

The last few years have seen a growing call across the research enterprise to increase transparency around animal research—why we do it, why it’s important, and what it has accomplished. PRIM&R supports the animal research and oversight communities in these transparency efforts, and is thinking about ways that we can contribute to and enhance them.

I also wonder whether there is another layer of transparency we ought to be promoting—namely, transparency about the ethical dimensions of animal research and its oversight.

Specifically, how might being more open about the ethical issues and questions that are part of the day-to-day work of those involved in animal research serve our collective goals of educating and engaging the public; increasing their understanding, trust, and support for the animal research enterprise; and reframing the public conversation? 

National and local advocacy organizations, such as NABR, AMP, FASEB, and NWABR, amongst many others, have long been working to educate the public and other stakeholders about the vital importance of research with animals. Recently, we’ve seen a call to action for the scientific community to speak more openly about their research programs involving animals. Our colleagues at Speaking of Research have been at the forefront of these efforts, using their platform to highlight accurate, comprehensive, and lay-friendly information about the many contributions of animal research to both medical and veterinary science, as well as to persuade scientists and the institutions involved in animal research to enhance their transparency efforts. 

Last year’s Basel Declaration Conference, held in San Francisco, explicitly called for increased transparency efforts on the part of those conducting and supporting animal research, in the interest of bolstering public trust. And Science recently highlighted transparency efforts in Europe, including the Concordat on Openness in Animal Research in the United Kingdom, signatories of which pledge to improve communication about their research—specifically when, how, and why they use animals—and to make concerted efforts to engage the public.

This general push toward openness seems to reflect a collective sense that the “flying under the radar” approach taken by the animal research community for many years, though understandable in the face of animal rights extremism, may have allowed the anti-research voices to control the conversation and win public hearts and minds. In fact, the UK Concordat was precisely a response to declining public support for animal research.

Even if some institutions remain reluctant to throw open their lab doors, in principle, at least, there is an emerging consensus that openness and engagement with the public may do a better job of balancing the narratives of animal rights groups, busting myths about animal research, and bolstering public support.

But I’d argue the community has been much less interested in, or focused on, fostering transparency about the ethical dimensions of animal research and its oversight.

Part of what I have in mind is transparency about the robust oversight systems in place for animal research: the federal regulations and policies, the accreditation framework, the institutional structures, and the cohort of trained, experienced professionals dedicated to ensuring the welfare of research animals. (I should note I’m leaving aside here important questions about whether we have too robust a structure, or the right structure, for oversight—questions about what we often call “regulatory burden”). I would guess that most of the public is unaware of what’s in place to ensure and promote research-animal welfare.

In recognition of that fact, last year PRIM&R published two commentary pieces with the specific goal of raising awareness—amongst the public and Congressional staffers, respectively—about this perhaps under-recognized feature of the animal research enterprise.

Beyond transparency about regulatory oversight, can we also be more transparent about the fact that we as a community regularly encounter and grapple with ethical questions, make ethical decisions, and deliberate about ethical tradeoffs?

What would happen if we were open with the public about the following:

  • The fact that IACUCs—the ethics committees that have to review and approve most research before it moves forward—regularly, and as part of their understood role, weigh benefits against harms involved in studies proposing to use animals. That is, they conduct an ethical evaluation—explicitly looking at whether the knowledge to be gained from the study (the benefit) justifies the use of animals and the pain or distress the animals might undergo to achieve it.
  • The fact that there is a set of universally accepted, guiding ethical principles baked into the research enterprise, which says, where possible and consistent with the science, we must (1) replace the use of animals (and search for alternatives); (2) reduce the numbers of animals used; and (3) refine the procedures we involve animals in to decrease their pain and distress. 
  • The fact that how these principles get applied in practice is something that researchers, laboratory and animal care staff, and IACUCs deliberate and make judgements about on a daily basis. For instance, scientists have to justify the numbers of animals they are proposing to use in a study, run that justification by an IACUC, and demonstrate that they have done their due diligence in looking for alternatives. IACUCs will regularly ask researchers to take further measures to mitigate pain or monitor distress if they believe not enough attention has been paid to the impact of a study’s scientific procedures on animal welfare. And animal care and veterinary staff research, develop, and provide species-specific environmental enrichment that will enhance the well-being and functioning of animals in the lab.
  • The fact that animals and their human caretakers in the lab form emotional and moral bonds, and this takes various forms—from conventions around naming animals and holding ritualized memorials when they are euthanized, to the very real phenomenon of compassion fatigue.

What would being more open about these dimensions of our work achieve?

It would demonstrate to the public that there is, across the research enterprise, an appreciation of and commitment to the notion that animals who contribute to research are morally owed concern about their welfare—and that concern about animal welfare is not solely the purview of animal activists.

And it would communicate that the decision to use animals in research—both generally, but also in the context of any particular study—is always framed in terms of tradeoffs between things that morally matter: between scientific knowledge and cures for animal and human diseases, on the one hand, and pain and distress for laboratory animals, on the other. That is to say, even when they believe that, overall, animal research is morally justified (given our lack of alternatives and the many benefits it has brought) those who conduct, monitor, and oversee that research still ask of each and every study whether it is worth it, given the costs in terms of animal pain, distress, and lives. And they ask whether there are ways to do it better from the perspective of animal well being—for instance, with fewer animals, with more enrichment, or enhanced pain control.

Why don’t we talk about the ethical dimensions of what we do more?

Well, for one thing, it’s complicated and nuanced. And given the limitations on our time and resources, we may believe the most efficient way to bolster public support is to focus on the many important contributions of animal research to human and animal health, or on facts about why animal research is necessary.

But I think another, more concerning reason is our worry that by letting people know that we grapple with ethical questions and tradeoffs, we start down a slippery slope to the conclusion that the whole enterprise of animal research is on shaky ethical ground. After all, acknowledging that that there are ethical tradeoffs in play shows that it must, at the end of the day, be ethically wrong, right?

Wrong. We are talking, here, about ethics in the real world, a world in which there are diseases that cause human and animal suffering, disability, and death. That’s the messy, complicated world we live in, and we need ethics for that reality. In that world, doing the best we can do, morally speaking, will involve making hard choices and decisions, making tradeoffs between things—such as individual animal well-being and knowledge about cures—that everybody agrees both have value.  

I worry that if we don’t talk openly and explicitly about the ethical dimensions of what we do, the ethical questions and challenges we deal with on a daily basis, we risk abandoning ethics to the animal rights activists. We risk appearing to care only about science, while the “other side” (a way of speaking that I don’t generally like, but is instructive here) cares about ethics. We all know that is nonsense.

So what I’d like to see is a reclaiming of ethics by the animal research and oversight community, by being more transparent and open about the many ways that we engage with the ethical challenges raised by research involving animals. PRIM&R has always believed that supporting the animal care and use community is compatible with fostering rich discussions about the ethics of animal research. Might public support be enhanced by engaging them in those discussions as well?

I invite you to think about the issues I have raised, and share your reactions, as well as what you see as the benefits and challenges of engaging the pubic around the ethical dimensions of what you do.

And I want to reiterate that PRIM&R is continuing to think about ways we can support your efforts to enhance transparency about various facets of your work. Please share any thoughts about how PRIM&R could be an ally on this front.