Human Exceptionalism

Animal Researchers Poll: Research Needed, Activists Harm Science

Nature has polled researchers who work with animals about the need for research and the impact that animal rights advocacy has had on their profession.  Here is a sampling.  From ” Battle Scars,” (24 FEBRUARY 2011 | VOL 470 | NATURE | 453, no link):

More than 90% of respondents agreed that the use of animals in research is essential, but the poll also highlights mixed feelings on the issue. Nearly 16% of those conducting animal research said that they have had misgivings about it, and although researchers overwhelmingly feel free to discuss these concerns with colleagues, many seem less at ease with doing so in public. More than 70% said that the polarized nature of the debate makes it difficult to voice a nuanced opinion on the subject, and little more than one-quarter said that their institutions offer training and assistance in communicating broadly about the importance of animal research.

That comports with my anecdotal conversations with researchers and their spokespersons.  Using animals is essential.  Researchers treat their animals properly.  But, in the end, they die in the cause of gaining knowledge and relieving human and animal suffering.  No one relishes that part of the science.  It is an uncomfortable necessity.  Moreover, because so many in the public now react emotionally to animal issues–researchers worry that if they describe what they do, they will be faced with hostility–even when they can empirically demonstrate the tremendous benefits derived from the animal research.

Researchers were also asked about what they had experienced from animal rights protesters.  It isn’t a pretty picture:

Animal researchers who said that they or someone they knew had been affected by activism [about 35% of respondents] wrote about incidents ranging from anonymous threats and protests outside laboratories to vandalism, ‘liberation’ of animals, physical attacks by masked activists and bombs both real and simulated. “Home damaged, young children terrorized, death threat, etc,” reports one genomics researcher matter-of-factly. A small number, about 15% (26 respondents), who had been negatively affected by activism said that they had changed the direction or practice of their research as a result. After encountering violent protests, one US academic was “much less willing to conduct any studies on non-human primates, despite their absolute critical relevance for neuro-protection research”.

Terrorism is not the same thing as peaceful protest.  The former should be opposed by all, and the latter supported by all.  But in my experience, most animal rights supporters yawn at the terrorism, even though Gary Francione, Wayne Pacelle, and Peter Singer (weakly) oppose such tactics.

Primate researchers face the most hostility and only38 out of the 980 responses to Nature’s survey came from that sector.  But there was an interesting discussion in the article contrasting differing views between an animal welfare proponent and a researcher:

Hannah Buchanan-Smith, an animal-welfare researcher at the University of Stirling, UK, says, “Primate laboratory researchers are finding it harder to justify their research to the public.” Buchanan-Smith refuses to do any animal research that causes pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm, and says that basic research on primates presents a particular ethical challenge. She argues for alternatives to animal testing. “Replacement is the ultimate goal and we are moving in that direction with certain groups of animals,” she says. “I very much hope in my lifetime that will be achieved in primate research.”

Stefan Treue, head of the German Primate Centre in Göttingen, views primate research in a different light. He says that after lay-people have visited his laboratory and seen how work is conducted and why, “something like 98% understand and accept that this is a small but important and irreplaceable part of biomedical science that is conducted to the highest ethical standards”. Treue rejects an ethical distinction between basic and applied research. “It’s not a logical argument to say, ‘I accept applied research but I don’t want the underlying basic research’, because you can’t have one without the other. I have to admit that partly the science community is to blame for not explaining that more clearly and more frequently in public,” he says.

Bottom line: Animal researchers do important work that is not sufficiently understood by the public.  Animal rights activists sometimes use tactics against researchers that should be unacceptable in free societies.  “The Three Rs” initiative–replacement, reduction, refinement–is reducing the number of animals used in research.  And that is good.  But while we can and should keep the number of animals used to a minimum, we will never (at least in our lifetimes) be able to eliminate their use without hobbling scientific and holding back medical advancement.

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