Conversations to Improve Animal Welfare in Research and Teaching (by Katherine Reid)
Society is composed of individuals and personal ethics are a choice made on an individual basis. These individual choices coalesce to form the societal ethic. The societal ethic becomes the basis of the acceptance or rejection by society of a practice such as the use of animals in research and teaching. It is by influence on the individual that science gains its approval. These opinions of the individual are formed from numerous and nebulous factors. Because the knowledge and experience of the individual is the basis for their decisions, the influence of science must be to affect that knowledge and experience. That influence is exerted in conversation. Through literal and figurative conversations ideas are exchanged and the reasons for decisions are considered. These conversations take place among the members of society, some of whom are themselves scientists. Many of the most important conversations are commonplace and mundane. Other conversations are dramatic taking place in print and media. Conferences, seminars and meetings are the venues for more conversations. But always conversations occur between individuals who are members of society. In some conversations the individuals are scientists. Sometimes scientists talk to non-scientists. And non-scientists will converse among themselves. All of these conversations form the basis for the personal decisions on ethics which provide continued acceptance of the use of animals in research and teaching.
From individual knowledge and personal experience conclusions are drawn and this is the basis for personal ethics. The knowledge and experience of individuals is extraordinarily diverse. For scientists, the training and experience of the discipline is a strong influence on their personal decisions about animal use. Part of scientific training regarding the basis for animal use includes the principle wherein cost to animal health and welfare is squared against the benefit derived from the use. Reduction, refinement and replacement are equally important principles which seek to maximise this equation and gain the greatest benefit for animal cost. These are good principles and their application is an important ethical justification for continued use of animals in research and teaching. But these principles must not be employed without careful consideration and understanding of the meaning behind them. Unconsidered reliance upon conventional principles is not sufficient to ensure continued acceptance by society. In application such principles must be vibrant and living practices and not be allowed to stagnate and harden into unconsidered dogma. Scientists are also individuals within society and not a separate or opposed entity. Scientists embrace scientific values and these values become part of the basis for societal acceptance. But not all scientists share identical background and variance occurs among the opinions of scientists as to the ethics and acceptance of animal use. Acceptance of animal use by scientists is a part of societal acceptance and a significant influence but not the entirety. By thought and discussion, these concepts will be kept alive in the minds of scientists. These principles will serve as some of the topics for conversation.
As with scientists, acceptance by non-scientists within society is based on the particular knowledge and experience of the person. There is also a factor of visceral reaction and emotional perception of the question. The particular acceptance or rejection by an individual is generally not based on direct experience of the realities of animal use and welfare of animals. It is also highly unlikely that the individual decision about acceptability of animal use is based on understanding of the benefits gained. Essentially, non-scientists do not apply the same principles that scientists are trained to use. So upon what does the average individual base their decision?
The cynic will say that non-scientific opinions are based on emotional and irrational reactions. They will contend that the emotional reaction is due to lack of scientific education or direct experience. They will further put forth that the average member of society is unwilling and uninterested in education or a greater appreciation of the realities of animal use. This same cynic will likely conclude that the acceptance or rejection of animal use by society should be based on strict application of scientific rationale and valueless science. This, in their opinion, is the only way to derive the single correct conclusion in a given situation. The fallacy of this argument is that even scientists cannot agree on correct application of the scientific method and rational evaluation by multiple parties does not always reach the same conclusion in any given case. Furthermore, science is not without emotion. Scientists too have an emotional response but training reduces the influence of this. The response is reduced but not eliminated. Scientists are human and, however logical and calculating, they still feel emotions about the work in which they engage and the animals which are used in that work. Misuse of animals in any context will affect scientists as human beings. That reason alone is sufficient to motivate scientists to carefully consider the welfare of animals used in their work. An emotional reaction is also not entirely irrational. Human emotions have evolved for survival. Emotions in favor of improving animal welfare can be argued to be self-protective. Humanity existed as an agrarian society for millennia and depended upon hunting since before the advent of agriculture. Before humans ate animals and kept warm in their skins they depended upon an ecosystem which relied upon healthy and vibrant animal populations. The inherent desire to protect animal species is not entirely irrational and can be thought to be based upon the human symbiosis with the other animal species. Conversation is the tool by which each party comes to appreciate the emotional reaction of the others.
The pragmatist will say that animal use is a strictly mathematical cost versus benefit equation where the pain or damage inflicted on animals must be weighed strictly and mathematically against the benefit derived. The evidence of benefits to society gained by the use of animals in research and teaching is undeniable and exhaustive. The average individual, a critical decision maker about the acceptance of animal use is largely unaware of the extent to which animal use has benefited them. Even scientists are not completely informed about the extent to which their lives have benefited from animal based research. Scientists are also insufficiently informed of the negative aspects of animal use. The apparent equation becomes imbalanced and does not reflect the reality which it attempts to judge. The ability to solve the equation accurately is further impaired by the lack of understanding on both sides of the equation; cost and benefit. The effects on society for good or ill will not be determined except in the context of history. It is impossible to know how the benefit from animal use will weigh ultimately. In practicality, lack of understanding of animal physiology and management makes accurate evaluation of animal welfare precarious. Knowledge of animal pain and the experience of suffering is changing and improving continually. Judgment can only be based on the most recent understanding and the future will undoubtedly show that understanding to be deficient. Conversations among individuals will weigh this balance in a way that accounts for, evaluates and incorporates the grey areas.
One current conversation puts forth that greater transparency in animal based research would benefit public understanding and thus promote acceptance. The thought is that if society were more clearly aware of the realities of animal use then they would be able to make informed decisions. Decisions would be based on logical evaluation and understanding of animal welfare. It is unlikely that greater awareness by non-scientists of the realities of research for animals will improve the welfare of animals. Society is generally not prepared to learn how the sausage is made. There are harsh techniques and uncomfortable realities of animal use of which non-scientists are not aware. Showing society the harm that is done without sufficient realization of the benefit derived is likely to create a strong and justified negative reaction to the techniques employed in research. This negative reaction by some members of society would not support the continued use of animals, even research for the benefit of animals. Lack of continued veterinary research would impact animal welfare negatively. Veterinary research is absolutely necessary for better understanding of the needs and physiology of animals. If improvements in the welfare of animals used in research and teaching are to be made, veterinary research is a necessity. By the fact that the superficial appearance of animal use would likely be uncomfortable to the uninitiated it can be concluded that there are important improvements which must be made in animal welfare. This reinforces the importance of societal acceptance of animal use and motivates the need to engage in conversations. To reprise the three R’s principles of animal use, conversation represents an important tool in refinement of animal use in teaching and research.
The purist will put forth that the acceptance of society is based upon the quality of research and that only from high quality research can relevant results be obtained. They will further add that any benefit to society is only derived from research that is applicable and relevant to society. These individuals will contend that both sides of the cost-benefit equation are dependent on quality of work done and analysis performed. The purist forgets that conclusions derived from data are subject to interpretation. These conclusions are in turn based on analysis of raw data and that analysis is subject to the style and influence of the primary investigator. It can be startling to realize how science is not, in actuality, fact. Society believes that an observed phenomena, measurable and recordable, must be real. Society and science both accept that once something is published in peer reviewed literature, it becomes practical fact. Better scientists see the influence of analysis and interpretation and understand the process of scientific investigation in elucidation but not proof. Science contends that this method is the best available representation of reality. This is a leap of faith, though oddly logical. By faith, science becomes religion and subject to dogma. But any observation, measurement and recording is still only subjective. Scientific investigation into cognitive neurosciences and the mechanisms of consciousness reveal that reality is perception. An observed phenomena is subject to perception and is an individual experience. Observation therefore is a personal experience, different for every individual. Measurement and recording equally are interpretations which require analysis. Science itself undermines its own essential tenants and the dogmatic are forced to resolve the discrepancy. As science develops and progresses human knowledge of consciousness, the faith in science as fact will be challenged. Acceptance by society will change to accommodate. Conversation will benefit all parties as understanding of the mechanisms of human cognition change. There are direct implications to the ethics of animal use for human purposes. These will come forward as science reveals more about the nature of human and animal consciousness. New understanding will change how all view animal welfare and the relationship between humans and animals. It will be a radical change in thought for all parties and continued conversation will be essential for all to resolve the issues that will surround the new understanding.
Understanding of the subjectivity of perception promotes humility. The intent here is to demonstrate the variety of perspectives and opinions in order to appreciate the reasoning behind individual decisions. It is also to show that no single perspective is the correct approach. The acceptance of society is a synthesis of varied perspectives with the advantages and disadvantages of all. The function of conversation is to express, develop and share positions, examine fallacies and failures as well as the strengths and to organically create a community and society opinion from the mosaic of individual perspectives.
Engaging in conversation has several important functions. It is necessary to learn and experience the opinions and perspectives of others as well as learn important knowledge from the experiences of others. It is also necessary to debate and be coerced into articulation of logical arguments. Arguments require support with reasons and rationale and communication of these forces their examination. By explaining opinions to others, insight is gained on both sides as to the reasons for decisions. This practice moves decisions away from dogmatic authoritarianism to insightful, and carefully considered choices based in reason with due respect given to emotion. Conversation also induces self-analysis and promotes a critical evaluation of personal practices and beliefs. Most will have to examine their own practices if they are to confidently argue for those practices to others. As an example, a scientist who cannot comfortably discuss the animal techniques used in their lab with others including non-scientists will be forced to begin to examine those techniques. They will have to critically evaluate if they are in fact based on ethical decisions about animal use. The mutual exchange aspect of conversation also serves to communicate ideas between parties with different experience. Participants in the conversations gain empathy for others’ point of view and in return allow empathy from others. These benefits will ultimately be crucial to ensure the continued use of animals in research and teaching.
Conversation and debate with non-scientists is important for the scientist as a member of both society and of the scientific community to which they belong. It is all too easy for any person to only engage with those who share their ideas and values, such as scientists discussing animal use only among other scientists. Such conversations in isolation are unlikely to produce fruitful progress and will not serve to improve the acceptance of animal use by society. Because science is an integral part of society and functions within society, scientists cannot remain isolated and removed from that society. Conversations with the broader group will promote a greater understanding of society’s values by members of the scientific cohort. If science is to continue to function as a valued part of society, scientific values will need to incorporate societal values. This conversation will also work for promoting understanding of scientific values by non-scientific portions of society. It is the propagation of this greater mutual understanding which is one of the key functions of conversation and critical to the continued use of animals in research and teaching.
Conversation must also take place within the scientific community. There is no doubt that for the greatest benefit to be derived with the least cost to animal welfare, science must be of the highest quality. The debate must continue as to what constitutes high quality, relevant research. Individual scientists will need to embrace the importance of research quality and move beyond mere acquiescence to authority. Individual scientists need to determine for themselves what constitutes quality research and implement this because it provides the greatest benefit, not because they suffer penalties otherwise. Conversation within scientific society will be necessary for individuals to understand what is quality science, how to implement good practice and the importance of this.
Exchange of ideas, as occurs in conversation also serves to improve education of all participants. The cynic was convinced that society was unwilling to self-educate and keep themselves informed. By conversation, the uninformed gain valuable insight and improve the breadth of their experience. In turn, through conversation, the cynic will hopefully come to understand that scientists are humans with emotions and subject to emotional reaction. The pragmatist will see that the mathematical equation is not so easily weighed but will learn from conversation that cost versus benefit is highly complex. The purist will come to understand that while high quality science is in fact essential, defining what constitutes high quality is difficult and will require continued evaluation through debate and conversation.
The actual conversations do not need to be elaborate or formal. They will take place naturally and develop organically. People will congregate and talk at school or on the bus. The issues discussed will be the topic of conversations at scientific meetings and committee hearings as well as at conferences and in classrooms. Conversations will take place in the elevator and in lecture halls. The quiet will listen patiently while the talkative ramble on. The erudite will relish the opportunity to debate and all interested parties will finish with a slightly different perspective than they started. What is important for the purpose is that no one shrink from the conversation. The topic can be difficult and emotional at times. Many will not have thought about the topic and others will be excessively enthusiastic. But all must consciously engage and participate. There is no excuse for not participating. Every member of society has a responsibility to converse. This is because all of society will derive benefit from the good usage of animals in research and teaching. For the same reasons, all will be impacted if society withdraws its acceptance of animal use or if that animal use is poor.
Acceptance of animal use in research and teaching is based on the decisions and opinions of the individual. Many and varied factors influence those decisions and opinions. The breadth and depth of experience and knowledge which underpins the perspectives of individuals is vast and only continues to grow, expanded by continued scientific research and investigation. There is no single act or policy that can guarantee that society will continue to accept the use of animals. There are in place many sound principles as well as irrational dogmatic beliefs. It is an overwhelming task to try and resolve the varied experiences and opinions of a society composed of such varied individuals. Free societies do not dictate morals but rather allow free and open debate to determine ethics. The mechanism of this debate is the simple conversation. By conversation, progress will continue and the opinion of society will adapt to meet the needs of that society. The place of scientific research and the use of animals in science will continue to develop organically with that society as it progresses. The simple conversation will serve to bind science within society and determine the future of animal use in research and teaching.