Tag Archives: speaking of research

Big Questions, but few answers from opponents of animal research

A recent edition of the BBC1 Program called “The Big Questions” offered a brief debate on animal research. Among those discussing the issues was SR’s founder, Tom Holder. Within this post we will discuss some of the many issues which were touched upon, but barely explored in this brief debate.

Some of the questions centered on moral issues, other on scientific ones. At the beginning of the discussion Prof. John Stein of Oxford University explained his use of monkeys in studying Parkinson’s disease, after which he was asked if he would experiment on great apes.  He replied he would not, unless there was some extreme circumstance that required them.

Where would you draw the line?” — countered the host.

Let us pause for a second here. This is an important question that is worth asking. But first let us consider – and reject all the theories that do not involve drawing any lines at all.  What theories are these?

One is the Cartesian view, which posits animals do not truly suffer, do not really have emotions, and do not really have interests of their own. Consequently, the Cartesian view is that humans can use animals as we please. We do not know any living scientist or philosopher that would seriously defend this view.

The other theory that does not draw any lines is the animal rights view, in which all living beings have the same basic rights to freedom and life as a normal human. Although most members of the public reject this view as making no sense at all, nobody in the panel cared to explain, nor did the host bother to ask, what justifies this stance.

What Prof. Stein articulated as a justification was a version of something called the sliding scale model.  Here, the moral weight of a living being’s interests depends on the individual’s degree of cognitive, affective and social complexity. Where we draw the line for different types of experiments in animals is a valid and important question, but we can only ask it that if we all agree with the notion of graded moral status.

Opponents of research reject such a theory.  Alistair Currie, from PeTA, stated:

Suffering is suffering.  We have a moral obligation not to impose it on anybody.”

We generally agree that unnecessary suffering should not be imposed on other living beings, and as Prof. Stein stressed, scientists work hard to ensure that suffering is eliminated or reduced to an absolute minimum in laboratory animals. We do not think there are absolute moral principles.  Even “thou shall not kill” permits exceptions, such as in the case of self defense. Another example is the infliction of harm to other human beings that was, for most of us, morally justified and necessary when it came to liberating the concentration camps in Nazi Germany.

If we truly had an absolute moral obligation to never impose suffering on anybody, as PeTA representative Currie suggests, liberating concentrations camps would be morally wrong. We might accept such a declaration from someone who is a declared pacifist, but we have plenty of evidence to suggest that PeTA is a far from being such an organization.  PeTA remains morally confused.

Invariably, when opponents of animal research fail to make an ethical case for their position, they attack the science. In this case, it was Kailah Eglington, representing the Dr Hadwen Trust, who was in charge of this strategy.

“Scientifically looking at the facts, the animal model is flawed.” — she declared without even blinking.

Wait a second. Where was she when Prof. Stein explained how he found an area of the brain that when inactivated could relieve the symptoms of Parkinson’s? How does she explain his success?  Or does she deny the benefits of the work?

Ms. Eglington also suggested that Prof. Stein could have used non-invasive methods in humans, such as MEG, suggesting the same information could be obtained by this techniques. As Prof. Stein pointed out in his response this is flatly wrong. Prof. Stein not only uses a range of such techniques, including MEG and fMRI alongside his studies in macaques, but with his colleagues at Oxford University pioneered the use of MEG as a research method in patients undergoing deep brain stimulation. However, none of the non-invasive methods can yield the same data that one obtains using micro-electrode recordings from the brain, as we discussed in an earlier post on the limitations of fMRI.

A quick visit to the Dr. Hawden Trust web-site reveals that they state with absolute certainty that:

Alternatives to animal experimentation are available in virtually every field of medical research.”

Wow…   Let’s be clear: this is complete utter nonsense that deserves to be filed here. Should we be surprised at the lack of sensible science by someone who, on the side, founded an organization which claims that “the power of positive thinking” can treat physically debilitating conditions.

Kailah Eglington furthered her pseudo-scientific nonsense by claiming that: “9 out of 10 drugs that are tested on animals successfully fail in humans“. The problem here is the mistaken blame on the animal model – these same drugs have already passed pre-clinical non-animal tests such as cell cultures and computer models; moreover, about 90% of drugs fail at every stage of development – meaning that 90% of those that pass early clinical trials in humans still fail to make it to market – this is not something we can blame the animal model for. We have previously written a full and clear rebuttal of the 90% claim – however it continues to be used by the animal rights community.

Such examples go to show a common problem for advocates of science – that it takes a lot longer to debunk junk science, than it does to make it up. While Tom Holder and Prof. Stein argued science’s case very well the debate highlighted some of the limitations of this format, though perhaps this is all we can expect from a format that tries to address Big Questions in 15 min of television programming.  It seems the goal here is more to get opposing sides to have a screaming contest rather than to provide an opportunity for thoughtful exploration of the questions at hand.

Speaking of Research

AAAS recognizes the work of Speaking of Research members

On Friday two of our number, David Jentsch and Dario Ringach, travelled to Vancouver to join their UCLA colleague Edythe London in receiving the prestigious Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society, with over 125,000 members, and the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award “honors scientists and engineers whose exemplary actions, often taken at significant personal cost, have served to foster scientific freedom and responsibility”. Recent recipients including the climate scientist James Hansen, NCSE director and defender of science education Eugenie Scott, and epidemiologist and public health expert David Michaels.

Both Dario and David have been long time SR committee members, writing numerous articles for the website on the importance of animals in research, the importance of researchers speaking up, and the dangers of animal rights extremism.

Both scientists are at the heart of the Pro-Test for Science, the movement which stood up to extremists at UCLa in 2009. Around 800 staff, students and members of the public followed Ringach and Jentsch’s lead as they marched through the streets of Los Angeles in support of lifesaving medical research. Well over 10,000 people followed their example by signing the Pro-Test Petition (supported by Pro-Test for Science, Americans for Medical Progress and Speaking of Research) in support of well regulated biomedical research on animals.

Edythe London has also been at the forefront of the battle to explain the role of animal testing in the development of modern medicine. In November 2007, she wrote a Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times to explain “Why I use animals in my research”. This excellent article was a brave and important stand for a researcher who had previously been targeted by animal rights extremists.

Animal studies allow us to test potential treatments without confounding factors, such as prior drug use and other experiences that complicate human studies. Even more important, they allow us to test possibly life-saving treatments before they are considered safe to test in humans. Our animal studies address the effects of chronic drug use on brain functions, such as decision-making and self-control, that are impaired in human addicts. We are also testing potential treatments, and all of our studies comply with federal laws designed to ensure humane care.

The AAAS made this award to Dario, David and Edythe in recognition of:

 “their rare courage, their strong defense of the importance of the use of animals in research, and their refusal to remain silent in the face of intimidation from animal rights extremists.”

While noting that:

“AAAS has consistently supported the responsible use of animals in research, testing and education. A 1990 statement of the AAAS Board and Council noted, for instance, that “the use of animals has been and continues to be essential not only in applied research with direct clinical applications in humans and animals, but also in research that furthers the understanding of biological processes.”

With this award the largest scientific organisation in the U.S. reiterates its unequivocal support for the responsible use of animals in biomedical research, and emphasises the increasing need for both scientists and professional organisations to engage the public in both scientific and ethical issues of great importance to our society.

We at Speaking of Research are grateful for the contribution which all three scientists have made to advance the public understanding of this controversial area of science – and we congratulate them for their accomplishments.


Tom Holder

An Open Letter to the Laboratory Animal Veterinary Community and Research Institution Administration

The decades following passage of the U.S. Animal Welfare Act in the 1960s are marked with wide-ranging and significant changes to the administration, oversight, and responsibility for daily operations of institutions engaged in laboratory animal research. The intent of the legislation, and the central purpose of the accompanying and continuing changes, is to best ensure the welfare of animals in research.

This goal encompasses all aspects of laboratory animal care— their participation in ethical scientific studies, their humane treatment during daily care and maintenance, and their receipt of the highest standard of clinical care. Do scientists engaged in animal research perform all of these duties?  No. In fact, by law, it is not scientists who have the ultimate responsibility for oversight of all issues involved in animal welfare, but the attending veterinarian and institutional officials.

In practice, there are a range of individuals who share in the responsibility to provide for animal welfare. Many different types of expertise are needed to provide the best management of a laboratory animal research facility. Scientists working with animals have expertise in the topic their research addresses, in the activities that research requires, and in use of animals in research. Depending on their research area, background, and training they may have tremendous depth and breadth of knowledge about the animals’ behavior, psychology, physiology, and other systems. But it takes more than this to accomplish all that is needed to maintain an animal research program.

Animal research programs always include veterinary staff to provide the animals with clinical care. They typically also include animal care staff to provide daily husbandry; behavioral management staff to provide environmental enrichment and animal training; and facility management staff who work with engineers and others to maintain clean and safe environments for the animals. In addition to facility management, clinical care, and daily husbandry there are also divisions of personnel charged with evaluation and oversight of the research, including the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, associated staff, and compliance officers. Oversight for the entirety of the animal research program typically rests at the level of university administration.

In sum, the number of individuals and divisions now involved in ensuring laboratory animals’ welfare and humane treatment in ethical scientific studies extends far beyond the scientists most identified with animal research.  What does this mean? It means that there is a great deal of shared responsibility for both successes and the occasional failures in the conduct of laboratory animal science.  It also means that any discussion of continued improvements in the daily activities that affect animal welfare, as well as changes in policies that govern the conduct of animal research, should benefit from teamwork among these different stakeholders.

A Veterinary Technician works with rodents

A huge number of people are involved in animal welfare in laboratories

Finally, it should mean that in public dialogue the voices of scientists and research advocates are routinely joined by laboratory animal veterinarians, university officials, and others who play important roles in laboratory animal research.  This is true even when that research is controversial and has the potential to elicit attention from animal rights activists. All too often, however, few of these voices are raised when the public eye is turned to issues of concern in animal facilities. Rather, in place of thoughtful answers to questions raised by a range of parties—by the press, by animal rights activists, by other scientists, by USDA reports— what is often offered are generic statements that contribute little to understanding of the events and the context in which they occurred. For example, in response to virtually any type of incident, an institution’s response might be along the lines of:  “We follow all regulations and hold animal welfare in highest regard and priority…”

It is long past the time that our community should have abandoned this approach and required more from each of its members and divisions.  To accept anything less is a mistake.  Absence of accurate information, accompanied by the failure of institutions and their representatives to engage in public dialogue, only further erodes public trust.

The intent of the AWA, subsequent legislation and policies, accreditation programs, revisions of guidelines, and continued increases in regulatory oversight is to ensure the best animal welfare and humane treatment possible.  In the rare cases where the apparatuses put in place to achieve this goal fail, sometimes from accident or human error, two things must happen.  First, it is contingent upon all of those involved to immediately work together to identify the reason for the failure and ways to minimize the possibility that it occurs again.  Second, those ultimately responsible for oversight should provide the public with accurate information, explanation, and opportunity for discussion.  At the very least, they should be able to articulate the rationale and their support for the research programs and their contribution to scientific and medical progress.

Are we suggesting that attending veterinarians and institutional officials open their doors for daily chats with animal rights activists?  No, but we do believe that addressing legitimate public concerns and questions about their animal research programs are among the key obligations of those charged with oversight and conduct of those programs.

While scientists can address questions about the scientific side of animal research, we need the laboratory animal care and veterinary staff to provide their expertise in service of addressing public questions about clinical care and husbandry.  If they do not, it will be no surprise if the public view of animal research is disproportionately colored by the relatively rare adverse events and the misrepresentations of animal rights activists. Many believe that it is possible—and perhaps acceptable—to ignore this part of reality in order to focus on more immediate demands for time, energy, and resources. Consider, however, that a fundamental part of the AWA, accreditation, regulation, and professional obligation is actually to ensure communication with the public that supports animal research.  Thus, it is our entire community who share a primary obligation to engage in the dialogue that surrounds us.

Speaking of Research Committee

Animal People’s Statement on Animal Rights Extremism

In this holiday season Animal People reminds us all that we are privileged to live in a democratic society, where different points of view can be expressed, discussed and debated freely, and where violence has no place as a tool to advance social change.

Speaking of Research welcomes and applauds this statement.  We hope the new year will only expand the circle of those open to civil dialogue and public debate.

The Animal People’s board resolution reads in its entirety:

The Animal People, Inc. Board Resolution on Activist Tactics

        Arresting the cycle of violence in human affairs is of greater importance than the accomplishment of any single tactical objective–whether trying to stop the slaughter of animals for food,  fur,  sport,  or religious rituals;  addressing the scientific use of animals;  or dealing with any other particular exploitation of animals.  We enjoy the opportunity to address social injustices,   inequities,  and cruelties (toward animals,  children,  women,  gay people,  poor people,  and racial and ethnic minorities) because we are privileged to live in a democratic society,  which through the effort of generations of our forebears has (however tenuously at times) replaced the old paradigm of “might makes right” with respect for the rights of individuals,  democratic process,  public debate,  freedom of expression,  and divergent points of view.

        Part of our social contract as civilized people is that we agree to trust in the ability of our ideas to persuade,  and to operate within established systems until they can be improved by peaceful means.

        We believe that no principle should be more inviolable than the principle that violence–including psychological violence such as intimidation,  the invasion of familial privacy,  and engagement with persons not responsible for or directly involved in issues (such as relatives of parties with whom there is a dispute)–must never be employed as means to achieve moral progress and advance social change.

        Protesters have the right to express dissent,  rally,  and even agitate in order to arouse public concern in the hope of prompting action,  but demonstrations,  rallies,  and actions involving civil disobedience should be held at appropriate sites,  such as public areas including shopping malls,  universities,  government buildings,  or office buildings connected to the issues of concern.

Every Success is a New Challenge

Speaking of Research is getting its message out. The last few months have seen a huge surge in the number of readers of our blog. Alexa Rankings now puts us as the highest ranking dedicated pro-animal-research website. We put this success down to a number of things:

1. You – Sharing our posts – on Twitter, on Facebook, on Google+, by email – the opportunities for social networking are seemingly endless these days.

2. You – Linking to our posts – from your websites, your blogs, and the websites of the research facilities you work for.

3. You – Writing our posts – there has been a huge rise in guest posts on our blog. From researchers, primatologists, and other advocates for vital biomedical research.

SR has grown dramatically over the last six months

Thank you; your support has been vital to our recent success. Nonetheless, the challenge is great.

Speaking of Research’s Alexa rank is #2,641,005 (whereas, say, Google is #1 as the most visited website). This may be the highest of the pro-research websites, but it pales in comparison to the traffic from websites who fight against medical research using animals.

PETA – #9,144
HSUS – #41,531
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine – #94,068
Animal Liberation Front – #303,564
Animal Liberation Press Office – #985,313

So, in order to put right the misinformation propagated by many of the above websites, we ask for more from our readers. We challenge you to:

1. Share one of our posts each week, through Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or other social medium of your choice

2. To link to our post from your blog, or for the researchers among you, to make sure your institution has a link to us.

3. Write a guest post – “Why you support medical research on animals”. It needn’t be long; it would be great to just have a few responses we could string together into a new post.

We’re doing our part – are you doing yours?


Who says you can’t be Smart and Good Looking?

In order to allow readers to traverse the breadth of information available on the website we’ve given the whole website a makeover. All the pages previously reached on the left hand side of the page can now be found through the interactive menus at the top of the page.

Information should now be easier to find

Furthermore, we have now made it easier to follow us on Twitter through the twitterfeed on the right hand side of the page.

If you have any comments or suggestions, or just fancy telling us how much you like the new design, then please leave a comment at the bottom.


Tom Holder

Speaking of Facebook

Once upon a time the likes of Facebook and Myspace were strictly the domain of animal rights groups. Then, in 2006, Pro-Test changed this by using many of these social networking tools to boost a more positive, pro-research message. Hundreds of members to its Facebook group quickly turned into thousands, and spreading the message of the importance of research became easier.

When Speaking of Research was founded in 2008, it also embraced the opportunities provided by social networks – Facebook, Blogs, Twitter and YouTube were all used to spread a better understanding of the role that animal research has in the development of modern medicine. Now Facebook has determined that the old-style groups are out, to be replaced by fan pages. Through this fan page we can keep people updated with the latest stories and news from the Speaking of Research website.

Once again it becomes important to show that you support animal based research.

So go to http://www.facebook.com/SpeakingofResearch and click the “like” button now (you must be logged into Facebook to do this)

Please urge other friends and relatives on Facebook to do likewise. There were over 600 members in the old SR group – I hope this new fan page will go a few steps (and people) further by expanding the ease at which we provide information to the general public.



Whatever happened to dialogue?

One of the goals of Speaking of Research and Pro-Test for Science is to communicate facts and information about the responsible use of animals in biomedical research.  A second, equally important goal, is to try to understand the impediments to dialogue and establish a two-way conversation with animal activists and members of the public that are truly interested in an honest and open discussion.

What have we done in this regard?

In 2010 Drs. David Jentsch and Dario Ringach, along the student group Bruins for Animals, organized a discussion panel at UCLA that was considered a good first step at establishing some sort of meaningful dialogue with opponents of animal research.   The event was marred by multiple attempts from animal extremists to derail these first efforts to open a conversation.  They were unsuccessful.

It is clear that despite much calls for open debate on the use of animals in scientific experimentation some animal extremists do not want such conversation to takes place.  As an example, after the panel discussion a local group of animal activists led by Pamelyn Ferdin (wife of Jerry Vlasak, press officer for the Animal Liberation Front) continued their outrageous home demonstrations targeting the very same UCLA faculty that organized the event.  This outrageous behavior resulted in a decreased willingness from many among the UCLA community to continue planning additional meetings.

Despite such state of affairs, in Feb 2011 Dr. Ringach and Robert C. Jones (an animal rights philosopher from California State University at Chico and a participant in the our 2010 discussion panel), organized a one-day symposium on the similarities and dissimilarities of human and non-human primate cognition.  This was done with the agreement that any ethical debate on animal experimentation must start with clear scientific understanding of what is known about animal minds.  The symposium featured a very interesting set of presentations and discussions.  Video of this event is available online.

In the last two years Dr. Ringach participated in two debates on the use of animals in research.  The first one at the Institute for Human Values in Health Care at the Medical University of South Carolina, where he debated animal rights philosopher Dr. Nathan Nobis.  Manuscripts resulting from this symposium will be published by the American Journal of the Medical Sciences shortly.   A second debate took place at Rutgers Law School, where he debated animal rights scholar Prof. Gary Francione. A video of this event will also be made available online by Rutgers University in the near future.

We are often asked by colleagues and institutional officials if these efforts have been worthwhile.  The results have been mixed.  One one hand, despite all the associated problems, these activities have served to establish personal lines of communications with animal activists that are truly willing to listen to the other side, and the public get the message that all those involved in the responsible use of animal research are ready explain their side of the story. On the other hand, these activities have certainly drawn  increased threats and violence from animal rights activists that disapprove of civilized engagement. True, such behavior from a minority of animal rights extremists was anticipated.  What was not anticipated was the nearly absolute silence from the rest of the animal rights community on this issue.

As the scientific community reflects as a whole on the value of holding such events we cannot help but wonder — where are the animal rights activists and organizations that deplore violence and are interested in an honest and open dialogue?  Please step forward and tell us — what have you done to foster dialogue?


Speaking of Research