International Bias: Enough is Enough

February 4th 2020

Despite nationalistic tendencies and international bias being ever present on the political scene, they have no place in science or scientific discourse. Science works best with fewer/no borders because it embodies objectivity (based on evidence rather than perceptions). Therefore, social and other media bias against the quality of science and the animal welfare standards in a particular country or region need to stop.

For example, the recent announcement by Professor Nikos Logothetis, an internationally renowned neuroscientist and director of one of the prestigious Max Planck Institutes, that he is moving his research program to China generated a fair amount of chatter on social media about the animal welfare standards in China. The implicit message in many of those social media posts is that animal welfare is not a priority for scientists in China (and other non-Western countries) and that the science conducted therefore, is by definition, subpar.

Some examples of statements made with respect to the announcement of Professor Logothetis’ move to China.

What is being assumed?

Advances in biomedical technologies—molecular imaging, CRISPR, proteomics, metabolomics, chemogenetics, optogenetics, robotics, etc.—have accelerated the rate of scientific discoveries, while advances in communications, technology, and transportation has made science a truly global endeavor. Thanks to these advances, rather than being bound by national borders, scientific collaborations now span the globe. And, while new technology has helped to accelerate international collaborations, shifts in national and regional investment in building infrastructure and capacity for scientific research have also affected where science is conducted.

As we have written before, starting assumptions matter here.

One unwarranted starting assumption underlying some conversations about global animal research is, the unstated, unquestioned assumption that the US and European (and perhaps Australian) systems for oversight and regulation of animal research are inherently superior to those in the rest of the world, particularly those in the developing world. This assumption, however, is unwarranted because laws and regulations are not created in a vacuum and the benefits of one approach versus another require research to substantiate. That research is not available, thus statements of superiority are wholly unfounded.

It is also worth noting that societal norms and values shape standards that are established to regulate different aspects of life. Even likely universal values (such as do no harm) are interpreted within context. In addition, the moment in time matters, because current knowledge, available technology, availability of economic and other resources are factors that influence oversight and regulation, including the standards for the care and treatment of nonhuman animals in research.


Are standards in certain countries actually better?

The laboratory animal welfare standards in the US or EU countries today are markedly different from those of a century ago, but the same can be said of other countries. The same is true of animal welfare standards and treatment for a whole range of activities in which humans take a utilitarian approach in the use of other animals, including for clothing, food, education, entertainment and conservation or zoos.

The old standards would most definitely be deemed sub-par, even unethical from today’s perspective. But today’s perspective is through the lens of what we know now—and what we think we know will be the case in the future–about species-specific physical, behavioral, and social needs, as well as technology that we now take for granted. The future however may be different than we might currently hold with high esteem, because research may show some “good ideas” not to be very good for animal welfare after all.

Each country conducts and oversees animal research according to their own accepted rules and regulations. Naturally, there is international influence over domestic use of animals for scientific purposes, however even now there is common ground and substantial changes occurring internationally. An analysis of current laboratory animal science policies and administration by Kong and Qin revealed that the oversight of care and use of animals in scientific research in China “combines a centralized system (such as that of the UK Home Office) with regional and institutional levels of control,” similar to that of American institutional animal care and use committees (IACUCs).

Societies around the world that recognize the importance of science and the critical role of animal research within that endeavor, have set-up very  different systems and standards that permit the conduct of research that takes into consideration the humane care and treatment of the animals involved. In fact, even a quick comparison of US standards with those of European nations, such as, the UK, Germany and Switzerland spotlights the tremendous variation across these countries. Depending on the individual, their country, their experiences,  some standards may seem “better,” “higher” or “superior.” But such value judgements are often not evidence-based. Rather, they may be a simple reflection of experience or cultural values and not evidence-based.

In fact, standards that may appear and be lauded as “better” or “superior” could actually  have just the opposite effect on the welfare of captive animals in a particular setting. For example, in Switzerland, it is federally mandated that poultry hens be housed in multi-tiered aviaries (see here and here) and with outdoor runs if considered organic (see here).

In contrast, the US does not require multi-tiered aviaries and does not mandate housing conditions beyond the basic requirements that “housing systems must provide feed, water, light, air quality, space and sanitation that promote good health and welfare”.

In fact, there are many advantages and disadvantages to each housing system that equally affect animal welfare. While multi-tiered aviaries and free-range housing may appear to be a “better” housing environment, these housing systems have a higher incidence of bird injury including leg, foot, and keel bone fractures. In contrast, hens housed in single-level barns are less likely to suffer these injuries but are also less physically active and unable to display a full behavioral repertoire liken to similar species in the wild.

Only further research can teach us which housing system demonstrably improves their welfare. Similar differences, of course also exist in standards and regulations for the welfare of research animals. What all of this means, of course, is that opinion is a poor source for policy and practice. Our opinions reflect our experiences and cultural biases. Empirical evidence gives us a different way to approach questions and to inform policy and a way that can be evaluated on level ground.

Source. Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

The need for an inclusive perspective

The question we should ask, from the perspective of global science,  is whether an elitist perspective—one that denigrates societal standards that don’t align with our own, one that is devoid of cultural consideration—is conducive to global science, animal welfare, or the public perception of animal research?

In this rapidly shrinking world, rather than attributing malicious intent on the part of societies whose standards differ from our own, what should we do?  We could instead aim for a more serious, thoughtful and respectful consideration that takes into account social, economic, political and cultural contexts, and includes implementation of evidence-based policies and regulations, to be in the best interest of the public and society at large.

~Speaking of Research