Here is an article I wrote for The Endocrinologist on the importance of animmal research in science.
It is rarely out of the news for long, eliciting strong emotions in both scientist and the wider public, but the use of animals to advance medical research continues apace to deliver vital scientific discovers. For us endocrinologists, whether our interests lie with understanding how hormones affect cancer, the metabolic processes involved in skeletal muscle, or the cause of rare sexual disorders, animals provide the key to translating our cellular results into whole physiological models. In fact, without animal research advances would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, in almost all fields of biological research.
However, despite the mountains of Home Office paperwork that we all complete concerning the ethical and moral conduct we take to ensure animal welfare, we rarely step forward to discuss and defend why animals are so critical to our, and the public’s, scientific understanding.
Although a significant majority (about 75%) of the public broadly accept the use of animals to further research goals, there is a vocal and significant minority that abhor the idea. Strengthened by the musings of moral philosopher Peter Singer and his popularisation of speciesism – a belief that the treatment of individuals is based on group membership and morally irrelevant physical differences – they argue that humans have no right to cause suffering to another animal, and in so doing are demonstrating speciesism. Parroting Jeremy Bentham’s the “question is not, can they reason? nor, can they talk? but, can they suffer?”, Singer further argues that, although there may be differences between animals and humans, they share the capacity to suffer, and we must give equal consideration to that suffering.
As researchers who cause animal suffering, we should be acutely aware of the arguments that affect the moral and ethical dilemmas our work entails. The majority of us, I think, take a more balanced approach than Singer, pointing to evidence of the unusual rapid evolution of the human brain and the consequent exceptional aptitudes that we possess compared to other animals. As one commentator put it, “Over the course of human history, we have been successful in cultivating our faculties, shaping our development, and impacting upon the wider world in a deliberate fashion, quite distinct from evolutionary processes”. Jeffrey Alan Gray, lecturer in experimental psychology at Oxford, has written that: “I would guess that the view that human beings matter to other human beings more than animals do is, to say the least, widespread. At any rate, I wish to defend speciesism…” We choose to use animals in our research because we believe in order to understand biological complexity, and ultimately to enhance medical benefits, we must reluctantly sacrifice animals to that cause.
The public, who fund a significant amount of science across the UK, has a right to know how this money is spent and how we are dealing with our ethical obligations. Unfortunately, the scientific community generally remains reluctant to speak out and defend their use of animals. This is not surprising. Recent unnerving reports show that staff at Harlan Laboratories in Oxfordshire, which is continually targeted by animal rights activists, not only risk verbal and physical abuse, but being branded sex offenders. As one employee commented, “It is part of their (the animal activist) methodology to equate animal work with paedophilia. If they find out your name, you will appear on their website as a paedophile. It is disgusting.”
Such intimidation is a frequent weapon for activists. Harlan’s staff have remained resolute, but elsewhere the effect on the breeding of laboratory animals in the UK has been seriously affected. In 1981 there were 34 companies breeding laboratory animals. Today there are just three because of intimidation of workers and of companies supplying services and products to laboratories.
This situation is now critical. The closure of another UK breeder would make research in the UK, at best, difficult. Scientists have begun to fight back as they recognise the importance for both greater public and ethical transparency with their work. Supporters of the necessity for animals in research have rallied under the Pro-Test banner and march annually in Oxford. Furthermore, there are various webpages (Understanding Animal Research, Speaking of Research and The Ark Hive) that highlight how critical animal research is for furthering our biological goals of understanding life and curing disease.
However, more still needs to be done and to further this, I have put together the views of leading endocrinologists and scientists, as well as post-doctoral associates and Ph.D. students, who rely on animal research (for comments see The Endocrinologist – page 21-22). Most still feel inhibited about openly discussing their work, and many think the public do not fully comprehend why their research is necessary. A greater need for transparency, possibly through publishing in open access journals, was highlighted as a way to further engage the public.
Personally, I believe that we should be open and honest regarding our use of animals for research needs. Indeed, within my teaching capacity, I frequently highlight where animal research has aided biological understanding, and I run a website (www.the-ark-hive.org) dedicated to promoting debate on recent scientific advances that have relied on animal research. I am keen that many more scientists across the UK speak up to defend their use of research animals. With the continued threat to animal breeding facilities it is paramount that we continue to inform the public about the important life-changing research we do.