A scientist’s view of public interests in animal research and welfare

Public interest in animal research and welfare extend well over a century, with deep roots in different views of moral action, and the power to ignite highly charged emotional responses. Public interests are of two kinds: One is as recipients of the benefits that research delivers. The other is as decision-makers whose actions and views shape the social contract and conditions under which animal research is done—or not.

Decisions about animal research have consequences at societal and individual levels. As a result, serious consideration of the facts, inherent moral dilemmas, and future of animal research should extend far beyond the research community. What we often see instead is public interest in laboratory animal research represented not as the complex thing it is, but rather as a simple split: scientists on one side and animal rightists on the other. Logic versus compassion. Harm to other animals versus benefit to humans. Saving sick children versus hugging puppies.  Heroes versus villains.

In this cartoon vision, opponents stand at an unbridgeable gap armed with different conclusions from facts that may, or may not, overlap. Each argues their case to sway the public, legislators, media, and youth to “their side.” This approach persists despite the long history, complexity, and critical importance of animal research to public interests.

Often animal research discussions begin and end without thoughtful dialogue, or even full acknowledgement, of what gives rise to opposed positions. Most obvious is the divide over whether animals should ever be part of research and, if so, which animals and for which purposes. Less obvious are some fundamentally different understandings and visions of how science works, how deeply it is woven into more than a century of profound changes in health, environment, and technology and out understanding of the world.

Scientists, laboratory animal research community members, advocates, and educators can play important roles in advancing the public dialogue beyond old and polarized scripts. Conveying accurate and substantial knowledge about animal research is a primary responsibility. We can share why we believe the lines of division are false, why identifying heroes and villains falls short, and why we should reject the science versus compassion formulation.

We can contribute to the dialogue with specific examples illuminating why it is wrong to cast the issue as science versus animals, or to divide along the lines of those who conduct the work and those who protect the animals. We can demonstrate that scientific study is responsible for much of what we understand about other animals and for advancing better animal welfare. Animal research has fostered better medical treatment, conservation strategies, and care for other animals.

At its heart, the purpose and motivation for animal research is the drive to reduce suffering and improve human and animal health. There is no compassion in ignoring the suffering of humans and animals threatened by Ebola or any other disease. Nor should a small, privileged segment of global society make decisions that disregard the world’s population, animals, and environment.

As knowledge, need, and perspectives continue to change, these and other topics will be central to advancing a deeper consideration and informed dialogue that can protect public interests in animal research.

This cannot be the job of scientists alone, nor does it require information and expertise available only to scientists. It may require additional effort from all of us to better understand the topics, core moral issues, and consequences of different courses of action. It will require time and change to place serious and full consideration of these issues at the center of public dialogue, but it is time well spent to move forward in addressing the difficult choices and challenges we encounter as we seek to improve a shared world.

Eureka Guest Blogger Allyson J. Bennett, PhD is a developmental psychobiologist on the faculty of the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the Chair of the American Psychological Association’s Committee on Animal Research Ethics. Dr. Bennett is part of Speaking of Research, a volunteer organization that seeks to improve public education and dialogue about animal research. Speaking of Research’s news blog can be found here: http://www.speakingofresearch.com. This post originally appeared as the article, “Time for a Change,” in last September’s issue of Laboratory Animal Science Professional (LAS Pro), a quarterly magazine published by the American Association for Animal Laboratory Science.