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On animal research

As I was wandering aimlessly around Newcastle town centre today, I heard a couple of older women talking. The only snippet of conversation I made out was something along the lines of “it’s terrible all this research they do on animals these days”. This really made me think, because as a (I hope) scientifically literate individual, my initial reaction was “pfffft clearly they don’t know a thing about animal research”. Then I paused for a second and remembered that as a teenager (not that many years ago), I was against animal research. (It is worth noting here that as a teenager I also wanted to become a member of Greenpeace and attended all the anti-war protests I could; all at a time of my life where I genuinely thought it was “cool” to go to Edinburgh for the day dressed in my pyjamas armed with vodka in a Tango bottle and 10 Lambert & Butler). Anyway, I digress. The point I’m making here is that all too often we assume that “most people” are like us, and have similar views and attitudes to us. But they don’t. And with a topic as controversial as animal research, I can completely understand why people have such strong and opposing views. So for what it’s worth, and as someone who has gone from one extreme view to another, here is my primer on animal research.

Why are people anti-animal research?

I believe the main reason that so many people are violently against animal research is due to a highly emotive subject paired with a lack of knowledge and education: This certainly was the case with my 15-year-old hippie-wannabe self. It seemed obvious to me that you could not simultaneously be an “animal lover” and pro-animal research. But I now realise that is utter nonsense. But that’s not what animal rights extremist groups would have you believe. They like to bombard the public with pictures like this:

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Yes, this is a horrible image. But it is also a very old image and if you look hard enough I’m sure you’ll find other horrifying images of human behaviour from this era, like torturing fellow humans because of their religion or sexual orientation. My point is that you cannot judge current issues on what you think you know about the past. We learn from our mistakes, science advances, we move on. Don’t let stock shock and very often manipulated images like this make your mind up for you.

The truth about animal research

Have you ever been prescribed antibiotics? Are you up to date with your vaccinations? Do you know anyone who receives medicine for athsma, diabetes or high blood pressure? Guess what – we received these treatments thanks to years of research on animals. The fact is that without animal research, we would not have the life-saving medicines we have today. Therefore when people say “there is no clear benefit to humans from using animals in research”, you can tell them that they are wrong.

Despite what horror stories you may have heard or shocking stock animal rights images you may have seen, animal research is and must be carefully regulated. Three separate licences are required in order for any animal research to be carried out: a personal licence for the researcher, a project licence for the study, and a licence for the place where the research is done. In reality, due to extremely high standards and regulations, most lab animals are likely to enjoy a higher standard of welfare and care than your average household pet. According to a publication by the organisation Understanding Animal Research:

“Government vets and doctors make regular, and often unannounced, visits to make sure that the animals are being properly looked after. On their recommendation, licences can be removed and facilities closed down if rules are broken. Almost without exception, animals are specially bred for research and testing. Many studies cause little suffering. Typically, trained researchers give doses of a potential medicine, take small blood samples or scan the animal to check painlessly inside its body. Technologists and vets are on hand to look for the smallest signs of pain or distress.”

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The three Rs

The three Rs refers to three techniques that are required by law to be used instead of animal research, unless it is completely necessary. These are replacement, refinement and reduction.

Replacement  techniques are those which result in the replacement of animals in research with other models, such as computer models. I often hear people saying “why do we still need animal research when we have computer models? In truth, although advances in science and technology mean that animals are now used in fewer situations, some animal research is still essential for medical progress.

Refinement refers to the welfare of any animals being used in research. This is important not only from the perspective of our moral duty to minimise any pain or suffering to an individual animal, but also for the research itself: Animals who are not distressed and live longer lives lead to much more reliable and worthwhile data.

Reduction means using as few individual animals as possible in a given study. This can be achieved by good experimental design and statistical analysis.

So remember that by law, scientists are only allowed to carry out research on animals if all of the above guidelines have been met. Permission will not be granted if animals are not essential to the research, if their welfare is not of a good standard, and there are checks on how many animals can be used.

Final thoughts

One of the key arguments used by animal rights extremists is that the scientific community is being secretive, because they have something to hide, like animal research is their dirty little secret. This is not true; plenty of scientists who use animal models talk about their work, they publish journals and speak at conferences. The reason they may not do so much public engagement with those outside their field is because of the ever-lurking menace of animal rights extremists. This is a bigger problem in the USA than it is here in the UK, but it is still a very real threat. If your family is being threatened because of the work you do in the lab, would you want to talk openly and publicly about it? Thankfully, public support for animal research is increasing, and this is a Good Thing for everyone. If scientists were able to do their work without fear of backlash from animal rights groups, we would ultimately see  an improvement both in the welfare of the research animals (for example, some UK universities have animals which would benefit from outdoor enclosures but their visibility as lab animals would make them a vulnerable target) and in the scientific progress being made.

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