CNN Debate on Animal Research

The opening footage for the CNN Blogger Bunch discussion “Is animal testing necessary?” on Wednesday highlighted one of the reasons for a recent increase in public attention and media coverage of the role of animals in biomedical and behavioral research. The scorched front door of a scientist’s home illustrated the kind of “direct action” advocated by a number of animal activist groups who hope that harassment, threats of violence, and property damage directed at individual scientists will deter them and lead to an end of animal research. Unfortunately however, the debate also included repeating tape that featured shocking but contextless images of laboratory and farm animals.

The CNN debate also demonstrated the willingness of research advocates and animal rights activists to participate in open and public discussion.

Two leaders in research advocacy, Tom Holder (Founder of Speaking of Research) and scientist Dr. P. Michael Conn (Associate Director of Oregon Health Sciences University, author of “The Animal Research War”) presented clear, factual, and direct information about why animal research is crucial to human and animal health.  Two leading opponents of animal research, Peter Young (Animal Liberation Front supporter) and Dr. Ray Greek (President of Americans for Medical Advancement), made the case for halting animal research, but did not provide a clear vision of alternatives that could address major challenges to public health.

The debate touched upon many of the critical points of separation in views of about the use of animals in research.  Tom Holder and Dr. Conn provided the essential rationale for animal research: that it improves human and animal health by providing critical basic understanding, knowledge, and discovery of new prevention, intervention, and treatment strategies.  The counterpoint represented by Peter Young was that the value of all animals’ lives—including mice—are equal to those of humans and, in turn, that no animal research should be conducted regardless of its benefit to humans or other animals.  By contrast, Dr. Greek argued that animal research is ineffective and has not contributed to medical progress. Both of these arguments have been the subject of previous SR posts.

Young and Greek both failed to address the moderator’s direct question about animal studies used in, for example, the research, vaccination, and treatments of H1N1 viruses.  Both also strayed off point with talk of non-research use of animals (Young and the benefits of releasing farmed mink back into the wild) and such red herrings (Greek) as how chocolate is delicious to humans and fatal to dogs.

The time constraints of the program precluded in-depth coverage of some points and didn’t provide opportunity to challenge some of the statements that were misleading or inaccurate.  SR will continue to post follow-up to the debate with detailed analysis and discussion of additional specific points. Wednesday’s debate did, however, serve as a very public marker of the current shift in discussion, strategies, and attention to animal research.  The past decade’s escalating violence against scientists and others who support the responsible, ethical use of animals in research has increased their resolve to be more visible and active in their efforts to engage the public in discussion of the issues.

Discussion of the moral and ethical issues surrounding the use of animals in research is not new, nor is the participation of scientists in talking with the public about their work. Many speak about their work often and openly. They speak to community audiences, to college and other students, and to the media. What is new is the groundswell of support, widespread interest, and new groups (Speaking of Research, Pro-Test, Pro-Test for Science) that have catalyzed and organized efforts to challenge misleading campaigns and expose tactics of harassment used by animal activists in attempts to misinform the public on the one hand, and to discourage scientists from research on the other.

In addition, Wednesday’s debate provided an excellent demonstration that these efforts are successful.  The program provided basic factual information that is key to informed discussion of issues surrounding animal use in research, yet is rarely presented by animal activists. This information is often not clear to the public.  For example, the moderator provided statistics about the number and type of animals in research. These numbers highlighted what would not often be apparent from animal activists’ campaigns: the fact is that of animal in research, 95% are rodents, less than half of 1% are dogs or cats, less than a quarter of 1% are nonhuman primates (United States Department of Agriculture).

Another example:  the show began with images of property damage inflicted by animal activists and quotes by two scientists (Drs. David Jentsch and Dario Ringach) from an article advocating public dialogue about animal research.  The CNN moderator drew attention to the shift in the last decade from protests against institutions to direct harassment of individual scientists and their families.  Bringing the illegal actions taken by animal activists into widespread public awareness is important to informed discussion of the current state of animal research, including both its benefits and challenges. Those who rationalize violent actions against scientists, including murder, are often willing to do so in ostensibly public forums. Unfortunately these forums are frequently not familiar to the broader public reached by better-known and more “mainstream” animal activists groups.  As a result, the public view of animal rights groups generally fails to include not only the scope of their agenda and its far-ranging implications—including the end to all animal research—but it also ignores the extreme views and actions they endorse.

SR will continue discussion of points raised in the debate over the coming weeks.  We appreciate CNN hosting this debate and the participation of Tom Holder, Michael Conn, Peter Young, and Ray Greek.

Allyson J. Bennett, Ph.D.

The views expressed on this website/blog are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer, Wake Forest University Health Sciences.

3 thoughts on “CNN Debate on Animal Research

  1. I concur, I wish there had been time to note that the development of personalized medicine has required and will require animal research to be eventually effective. I also note how well the animal rights side sidestepped the question of what could be done to advance medical research if animal research is absent.

    It does worry me, though, that passion and emotion and fire often communicate themselves better than facts. I’m hoping very much that the energetic presence of Tom Holder and the calm and rational words from Dr. Conn will hold the day.

    In addition, I was very upset to see the constant footage of large animals suffering out of context. Animal welfare is one of the biggest concerns of animal researchers, and there needs to be footage or information provided to make this clear.

  2. I was somewhat disappointed by the debate, particularly that Michael wasn’t given the popportunity to counter Greek’s claim about the predictive value of preclinical animal (and for that matter in vitro) tests and how they are evaluated and the promise of personalized medicine. Perhaps Michael should have insisted on addressing those points before moving on to other questions. One of the reasons that personalised medicine is becoming an option is because of what we have learned from comparing the geniomes of different species and individuals within those species, and through analysis of biological processes in model organisms, with transgenic animals playing a particularly iportant role.

    There are also whole new areas of medicine that owe their existance to discoveries made through animal research, stem cell/regenerative medicine for example owes its existance to research in mice performed by scientists such as Martin Evans and Shinya Yamanaka.

    Dr. Greek can’t have it both ways, implying that there is some sort of vast animal research conspiracy while also claiming that the pharmaceutical companies and regulatory bodies are moving towards in vitro safety testing of chemicals and personalized medicine. The move towards a primarily in vitro bases toxicity testing system and the groming interest in personalized medicine are real but are in their early days, much of the knowledge and technologies required are yet to be discovered and developed. And as I mentioned above much of the knowledge required comes from animal research itself, for example in developing vitro/computational approaches represent in vivo biology.

    Of course the biggest role of animal research is in helping us to learn about the biology that underlies disease, such as in discovering the role of structures such as the telomeres. These advances in our understanding of basic biology underpin almost all other advances in medicine.

    That is why the overwhelming majority of medical researchers support animal research even though only a fairly small minority actually do it.

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