Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Research ethics and animal use

The other day, I was talking with some of the new students in my department. I was rather curious why most of them wanted to work in microbiology rather than immunology, and it turned out that the reason had a lot to do with an unwillingness to work with animals. For several of these students, there was no justification for harming animals; at least, "in the name of science," wasn't good enough for them.

Yesterday, during our monthly ethics seminar/discussion, the topic fell to lab animal care and rights. Several people had stories falling one way or the other, either researchers who refused to use anything but cell lines (and even then, some refused to use animal derived cell lines), while others told tales of of lab techs who would euthanize their animals by whacking their heads against the counter, or smacking them in the head with a stick. Blech.

The mission leader stated that 52% of the public opposes animal use in research. I don't know where he read that, but it's a dangerous number all the same. He only had one explanation for such opposition, but I can think of a few reasons to add to it:

  1. Ignorance. The thought was that people oppose animal research because they don't really understand how much benefit it brings, how widespread its use is, how much caution and care is taken in the use of laboratory animals, etc. I find it likely that this makes up the majority of that 52%. At least, I hope that's the case. These people likely oppose it when asked for a survey, but don't care enough to make an issue out of it during an electoral cycle.

  2. Naturalism. These are people who think that most modern, biological sciences are tampering with things that ought to be left well enough alone. This is the same group that rabidly opposes "frankenfoods" and other uses of bioengineering. I don't think this is a large segment, but they are quite vocal, and visible, when they want to be.

  3. Anthropomorphism. The fundamental justification behind the use of animals in research is that the life of a mouse (or rabbit, goat, rat, frog, etc.) is not worth the same as a human; the loss of a mouse to save the life of a human is, thus, a "no-brainer." If you place any sort of equivalence between human life and animal life, I'm not sure there's much to be done to convince you that animal research is worthwhile. For what it's worth, I dislike this position most of all because the end result is often people who will attempt to kill researchers in an attempt to "save" the lives of their research animals.
Oh, I'm probably oversimplifying things, but I think scientists need to hope that most of that 52% falls into the first category. My colleagues keep suggesting that scientists need to become more visible in the public eye, defending their efforts and justifying their work. I don't necessarily disagree, but it's awfully dangerous to be a spokesman for animal research these days.

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