“What do you think about the use of animals in research?”
This is the one question you can always guarantee will be asked in a job interview that has anything to do with the use of animals in research. And it’s actually quite a difficult question to answer well. The answer clearly lies somewhere between, “Yeah, I’m fine with it, I don’t care” and “We have no right to use animals like that for our own benefit.” But, how do you justify the experimentation of animals without coming across as glib or self-serving?
Quite apart from job interviews, I’ve always found this to be a difficult topic. I guess because it is both emotive and there is so much misinformation surrounding it. Generally, the only time you hear about animal research in the news is when there’s been a particularly horrific protest. And those who are most able to talk about the reality of animals in research, ie. the researchers, are scared and drilled into not speaking about it. To the point that only my family and a couple of close friends know what I actually do for a living.
Almost 75% of animal research is performed on mice
I will occasionally, once every year or two, come across an anti-vivisection “information” stand at a market or something, where they are handing out leaflets to try and persuade the public as to the evils of animal research, and the pleasure the scientists take from doing horrific things to the animals. This is obviously not the case, and it’s somewhat indicative of the weakness of their position that they have to cherrypick and inflate the stats, focussing on the most photogenic species, like dogs, cats and primates.
They completely misrepresent the fact that the vast majority of animal research is performed on mice (Figure 1), and more than 90% in mice, rats or fish.
In fact, there are only a couple of facilities in the country that perform research on monkeys, and in fact all research with chimpanzees and other great apes was stopped in 1998. Speaking of which, the reason all the pictures they use always look so terrible, is that they are all ancient (mostly from the 80’s or earlier, before the regulations were brought in).
Experimenting on animals is difficult and expensive
I’m not sure how many of the public actually know that you need a license to perform scientific research on animals. I say a license, when in fact you need multiple: a personal license for the researcher actually performing the experiments, a project license for the person (usually professor) in charge of the work, and a site license for the location the experiments will actually take place. And everything needs to be justified and planned beforehand, with expected outcomes and experimental group sizes. Then you need named training and competency officers, a vet, animal welfare officer and the technicians who will actually be caring for the animals.
And we mustn’t forget the home office inspectors who can, and will, drop by to check on the welfare of the animals, and make sure all paperwork and training is up to date. All of which means that experimenting on animals is difficult and expensive, and requires huge amounts of training and expertise. So anyone who thinks that overworked and underfunded scientists, quite apart from the moral and legal implications, will be frivolous with their use of animals, is deluded.
How to combat misinformation
There are, of course, institutions trying to combat the spread of misinformation, such as the National Centre for 3 R’s research (www.nc3rs.co.uk). It is, however, very difficult to get the public interested in science and statistics when compared to emotive pictures and moral outrage. Which is why it is so important for those that know better to spread good information about this topic.
But where do you begin, when the scientists have been conditioned to be silent about anything to do with vivisection, and the public are so conditioned to fear the evil scientist? It really has to come down to education, both about the realities of animals research – they are treated far better than farm animals, but the moral outrage clearly lands heavier on experimentation – as well as the benefits to medicine and society that come out of this research.
I’m not going to lecture my readers about all the great advances coming out of animal research; suffice it to say that any medical advance you have ever heard of was borne on the back of a huge amount of scientific research, much of it requiring the use of animals. And by the way, this includes many benefits to modern medicine that people may not think of. So even if there are people out there who take a moral stand and refuse any kind of medication because it required vivisection, you live in a world without smallpox and polio (and, might I add, with a Covid19 vaccine) thanks to the use of animals in research.
One of my goals with this website and blog that I have started is to help spread actual and interesting information about research involving the use of animals. Now it is up to us to be thoughtful and diligent with our use of animals, and make sure their sacrifice is not wasted.