Tag Archives: dario ringach

Saving Life on Earth

recent petition asks 22 scientists, myself included, to “justify your science claims.”  So far it has collected slightly over 14,000 signatures. It was organized by a group called For Life on Earth (FLOE) which bases its opposition to the use of animals in medical research based on the writings of Dr. Ray Greek.
How do I justify my science?  
It is a strange question.  To start my science is no different from the one conducted by my colleagues  — whether a geologist or a physicist.  There is only one science. It is the one based on the notion that we can postulate how some aspect of nature works, make our ideas specific enough to generate testable predictions, and use experimental methods to put those hypothesis to the test. Concepts that are refuted by the data go into the pile of rejected ideas, those that survive are pursued further and, in some occasions, after many years, and with much community effort, they are refined to the point that the account for such a vast amount experimental outcomes that we refer to them as theories.  This scientific method has proven itself over and over again over centuries and has led to the many technological advancements you enjoy today.  Science is the crown jewel of human intellect and reason.
The questions life scientists ask differ form those working in other fields.  We are interested in seeking fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems.  How do cells work?  How do they communicate with each other? How do they develop and differentiate into different tissues and organs?  How do they die and why?  In my subfield of neuroscience we ask question related to how neurons work together to allow us to store and retrieve memories, plan and generate movements, visually recognize objects, make decisions, and so on.  These are all questions scientists not only find intellectually interesting, but there is wide consensus that such fundamental knowledge is critical to enhance the health, lengthen life, and reduce the cost of illness and disability in both humans and non-human animals. 
Unfortunately, at this point in time, our methods do not allow to pursue cellular and molecular-level questions non-invasively in human subjects, and this is why part of the work requires the use of animals in research. Accordingly, a recent poll by the journal Nature revealed that nearly 92% of scientists agree with the statement “animal research is essential to the advancement of biomedical science.” 
Any reasonable person would agree a mechanic would be in a better position to fix a car if s/he actually knows the role each part plays, how they fit together, and what can happen if one of them fails.  Similarly, any reasonable person must agree that we would be in a better position to develop therapies and cures if we knew exactly how living organisms work in health, and what happens to our cells and other organs in disease. 
In contrast, the petition attempts to refute this self-evident truth, arguing that some recent scientific results explain why animal research has no value whatsoever for human health:
As the history of landmark scientific advances clearly documents, the scientific breakthroughs are often produced by the dedicated work of enlightened individuals, such as Darwin who brought us the Theory of Evolution, Einstein who gave us the Theory of Relativity and Kenner, Lister and Semmelweis who all contributed to the Germ Theory of Disease.  Science has more recently delivered the Trans-Species Modeling Theory (TSMT)[1], which demonstrates how current understanding of evolutionary biology and complexity explain decades of practical examples, the results of which oppose using animal experiments to try and predict human responses in medical research and the safety testing of new human medicines.
So what exactly is this Trans-Species Modeling Theory that the petitioners list as a scientific achievement of comparable in significance to Evolution, Relativity and Germ Theory?   
I invite you to look it up. If you search for “Trans-Species Modeling Theory” in Pubmed you will find the term not mentioned even once. If you look up the article cited by the petition in Google Scholar you will see it was authored by animal rights activists Dr. Ray Greek and Lawrence Hansen and cited a total of 5 times, not once in peered-review scientific articles. All citations are from web sites, including one from the petition itself (which, I have to say, appears written by Dr. Greek himself.)
We are also directed by FLOE to read what is supposed to be Dr. Greek’s seminal work — a book entitled “Animal models in light of evolution”. The book has been cited a total of 42 times. Not impressive. Even less when you consider 28 are self-citations from Dr. Greek himself; 5 come from animal rights activists who have been Greek’s co-authors; and the rest is from a handful of other authors, including myself which speak about the book in not very positive terms.
The FLOE web site shows Greek's book next to Darwin's "On the Origin of Species."  One if science, they other is not.  Can you tell which one is which?

The FLOE web-site shows Greek’s book next to Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” Works of comparable significance?  I don’t think so.

Let it be clear that contrary to what the petition says, science did not deliver Trans-Species Modeling Theory — a couple of animal rights activists did.  And it is not a theory of anything, but merely an opinion. To list Trans-Species Modeling Theory in the same sentence as Evolution and Relativity is a cruel joke on science.  At least, whoever wrote the petition, had the decency to spare us the pain of seeing the names of animal rights cranks listed among those of Darwin and Einstein.  
There is another reveling passage in the petition.  It refers to the use of animals in basic research as using them to gain “knowledge for knowledge sake,”  as if somehow such knowledge had no consequence whatsoever to the improvement of human health.  Such statement illustrates the ignorance of the petitioners about how science works.  When we talk about applied science, what is applied is knowledge.  You can even find this fact embedded in the opening words of the mission of the NIH, which is “to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.”
Lastly, the central question the petition tries to isolate and eager to debate is meaningless. Animals are used in medical research by formulating a hypothesis about a disease of interest, trying to recreate the disease in animal subjects, studying the basic mechanisms involved, and developing new methods to interfere or stop the development of the disease in humans.  When any one such attempt fails, it is a grave mistake to see it as a failure of science or as a general failure of the use of animals in research. It is simply a sign we failed to correctly capture all the relevant processes that take place in the human condition. Such failures are an integral part of the scientific process, as they narrow the space of possible solutions and will lead you to the accurate model.  Medical history has shown time and again that such process can, over the objections of animal rights activists, lead to a fruitful completion and save millions of human and animal lives.  
The work is justified because it saves lives on Earth.
Note: for other valid points see David Gorski’s response.

I Pro-Test for Science

Please leave your messages of support including your full name in the comment section at the bottom of the page (no sign up necessary). We must show our fellow scientists that they have our support. Names in the comment section will be added to the signatures at the bottom of the post.

When researchers are harassed and intimidated for carrying out their work, we must consider the whole scientific community to be under threat. We may not always be available to stand shoulder to shoulder with our colleagues, but we can still offer our strength and support from afar.

At UCLA, the scientists and their community are standing up to end the home demonstrations that have targeted their colleagues for many years.  As Professor David Jentsch writes

For more than a decade, the streets in front of the homes of UCLA researchers have been the scene of regular, brutal, vitriolic and hate-filled campaigns by animal rights hooligans. …  We have decided to act, with our voices, our messages of scientific progress and – most importantly – with the unity of our community.

Speaking of the successful first counter-demonstration at a home protest Professor Dario Ringach writes:

… it should not come as a surprise to anyone that after a decade of harassment, intimidation and threats,  we have decided to mount counter-demonstrations when these animal right terrorists show up at our homes.

These activists now have the shameless audacity to play the victim of this encounter. Incapable of understanding the message, they are now recruiting more misguided individuals to join them in their fanatical crusade and come back to harass us at our homes on February 15th.

We will be there to meet them once more and convey one simple message,

We are not going to take it anymore!

Colleagues and friends – please take a moment to leave a message of support for the brave UCLA scientists who have been subjected to fire bombs, home harassment, threats to their children, and relentless fear-campaigns for over a decade by animal rights activists, yet continue their work to advance science.  It may be difficult to imagine what this is like, and easy to imagine is an issue that is someone else’s– one that will never be yours– but it is not. It is an attack on public interest in scientific progress, in medical progress, civil dialogue, and democratic ideals. Our community is often silent in the face of attacks. We can change that and we really must.

I am Pro-Test

For those who think that this is about animal welfare, about specific types of research, about whether or not invasive research in nonhuman animals is justified, or about some other distinction among the wide range of issues concerning captive animals, it really is not.

We ask you to please read David Jentsch and Dario Ringach’s posts (here, here, here), watch this video, and get better look at what is happening.

These are our colleagues and scientists who bravely defend their work, who engage in public dialogue, who lend their voices to serious, fact-based consideration of ethical issues. Consider whether you really believe that the actions taken by the animal rights groups represent a best path forward.  If you do not, please take a minute to comment in support of the UCLA scientists and share with others who can be there to stand with them. Even if you cannot be in LA to stand with them, you can offer a comment in support and let the public know that home harassment is the wrong path.

Please leave a comment including your full name to be added to the list below.

We should all be Pro-Test. Now it’s time to say so.

Speaking of Research

Counter-demonstration. When: February 15, 10:15am sharp!
Where: Franz Hall Lobby @ UCLA (near Hilgard and Westholme)  http://maps.ucla.edu/campus/


Allyson J Bennett
Tom Holder
Chris Magee
Pamela Bass
David Jentsch
Dario Ringach
Jacquie Calnan
Paul Browne
David Bienus
Andy Fell
Jim Newman
Prof Doris Doudet
Gene Rukavina
Prof Bill Yates
Christa Helms
Jeff Weiner
Justin McNulty
Alice Ra’anan
Jordana Lenon
Jae Redfern
Melissa Luck
Claudia Soi
Kevin Elliott
Brian L Ermeling
Teresa Woodger
Joanna Bryson
John Capitanio
Dennis J Foster
Juan Carlos Marvizon
António Carlos Pinto Oliveira
Dawn Abney
Michael Brunt
Wayne Patterson
Greg Frank
Jim Sackett
Davide Giana
Paulo Binda
Emiliano Broggi
Marco Onorato
Cardani Carlo
Pasquele Franzese
Diana Gordon
Janet R Schofding
Rick Lane
Lorinda Wright
Jamie Lewis
Judy Barnett
Martha Maxwell
Stacy LeBlanc
Deborah Donohue
Paula Clifford
Cindy Buckmaster
Diana Li
Ashley Weaver
Jayne Mackta
Giordana Bruno Michela
Agata Cesaretti
Enrico Migliorini
Kim Froeschl
Daniele Mangiardi
Liz Guice
Myrian Morato
Patricia Zerbini
Michael Savidge
Jefferson Childs
Kimberley Phillips
Anne Deschamps
Dario Parazzoli
Robert M. Parker
Agnes Collino
Alberto Ferrari
Igor Comunale
Kristina Nielsen
Marco Delli Zotti
Megan Wyeth
Carolina Garcia de Alba
Andrea Devigili
Erin Severs
Patricia Foley
Mary Zelinski
Alison Weiss
Savanna Chesworth
Christy Carter
Joel Ortiz
William Levick
Lauren Renner
David Andrade Carbajal
Federico Simonetti
Daniele Melani
Dwayne Godwin
Howard Winet
Jeremy Bailoo
Stephan Roeskam
Mary-Ann Griffiths
Carolyn Pelham
Francesca Digiesi
Nicola Bordin
Dianna Laurent
Joe Erwin
Jennifer Picard
Vicki Campbell
Erin Vogelsong
Bob Schrock
Silvia Armuzzi
Elizabeth Harley
Wendy Jarrett
Barbara Rechman
Daria Giovannoni
Patricia Atkins
Scott Hall
Vickie Risbrough
Liam Messin
Brian McMillen
John Meredith
Aleksandra Gondek
Tehya Johnson
Nancy Marks
Leonardo Murgiano
David Markshak
William Horn
John J Eppig
Mila Marvizon
David Robinson
Steven Lloyd
Shari Birnbaum
Matthew Jorgensen
Karen Maegley
Barry Bradford
Corinna Ross
Stephen Harvey
Deborah Otteson
Bette Cessna
Steven Wise
Michael Conn
Gregory Cote
James MacMillan
Suzanne Lavalla
Lisa Peterson
Jennifer Perkins
Richard Nyhof
Beth Laurent
Gabriele Lubach
Michele A. Basso
Cindy Chrisler
Jian Wu
Mahmoud Loghman-Adham
Claire Edwards
Daniel T. Cannon
Emil Venz
Hyeyoung Kim
Jon E. Levine
Ken Linder
Kathy Linder
Matt Thornton
Margaret Maloney
Regina Correa-Murphy
Kristine Wadosky
Victor Lavis
David Fulford
Josiane Broussard
Fabio De Maio
Rachel J. Smith, PhD
Trinka Adamson
Cobie Brinkman
Emily Slocum
Michael J. Garrison
Tom Greene
Jenny Kalishman
Marcia Putnam

Who should be part of the animal research debate?

Note: The following is an invited post by Prof. Eric Sandgren,  Associate Professor of  Experimental Pathology in the School of Veterinary Medicine, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.  The views expressed below are his own and do not necessarily represent that of his employer.  

In late October, Professor Dario Ringach of UCLA visited University of Wisconsin-Madison to speak in UW-Madison’s Forum on Animal Research Ethics (FARE).  FARE is an experimental lecture series featuring speakers for, against, or in some way interested in the use of animals in research, testing, teaching, or outreach.  Dr. Ringach spoke on “The ethical dilemma of animal research”.  He shared some experiences and thoughts as a biomedical researcher who also has been the target of violent animal activist attacks.

I am a scientist who uses mice in research, serves as Director of an animal program, and speaks and debates frequently about animal use in research.  Several of Dr. Ringach’s comments resonated with me, and I will address one of them here.  He pointed out that people with absolutist views (“no animal research is ever justified”; “any animal research is always justified”) have marginalized themselves in any public discussion of this subject.  Specifically, those holding a position from which no compromise is possible can only proselytize in support of their views.

Dr. Eric Sandgren

Dr. Eric Sandgren

Serendipitously, in his blog about Dr. Ringach’s visit posted a couple of days before the FARE presentation, a local animal activist bragged “I am an extremist. I hope you are too.”   Under the heading “The Middle Ground”, he wrote: “It seems to me that very many moral issues don’t have a defensible middle ground. Here are a few examples: Nuclear war. Call me an extremist, but I’m 100% against it. Those in the ‘middle’ of the issue appear to me to be very very dangerous people.”  He gives more examples, as analogies for his view that animal research is one of those categories with an indefensible middle.

Of course, for those who don’t believe that animal research and nuclear war are the same, and I’m one of them, his comparisons have no persuasive force.  He’s just an extremist.

So for this activist and others with similar beliefs, any movement toward his position, any compromise, will be inadequate unless it is total. In fact, as he said aloud at the forum, unless animal research is stopped, “violence is inevitable.”

Wow. He is predicting that extremists will stop bothering with legal activity and use violence to try to accomplish their absolutist goal (we’ve seen some of that already), despite the fact that most people don’t agree with those goals.  Compromise, he says, will not satisfy them.  In other words, when they don’t get their way, the rest of us must pay.

At least he grants that animal research is in the “middle”.  And that is true.  Compare the situation of animal use before the Animal Welfare Act (first passed in 1965) with the present environment.  The two are vastly different.  Currently, there are extensive regulations of and restrictions on animal use.  Today’s practices are firmly in the middle, between extremes.  Animal researchers have demonstrated time and time again the ability to compromise.  Their participation in the dialog about appropriate use of animals is justified fully.

So who, then, is qualified to engage today’s researchers in honest discussion about animal research?  Certainly not the extremists, self identified or otherwise, who simply try to “convert the unenlightened”.  They cannot be honest participants in a true public discussion that is directed toward understanding opposing positions and exploring compromise.  The debate is unbalanced when it pits one end against part of the middle.

Target of animal rights protests kicks off animal research ethics forum

This article was written by Chris Barncard and originally posted on the University of Wisconsin-Madison news website. It has been reproduced with permission. The article mentions SR committee member, Dario Ringach, who will be speaking at 7 p.m., Oct. 24 in the Madison Public Library’s Central Branch, 201 W. Mifflin St., Madison, Wisconsin, US.

Any research that includes animals presents ethical questions, but they are questions Dario Ringach believes we rarely address together.

“There is a moral dilemma everyone has to recognize,” says Ringach, a professor of neurobiology and psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Rejecting that isn’t responsible, and is not based on any sound ethical thinking. But once we recognize that, there is a very useful discussion to have.”

Ringach, the next speaker in UW–Madison’s Forum on Animal Research Ethics (FARE) series, believes that nearly all conversation on the controversial topic is driven by the most extreme opinions on the issue.

Dario Ringach

Dario Ringach

He was invited to deliver a lecture — “The Ethical Dilemma of Animal Research,” at 7 p.m., Oct. 24 in the Madison Public Library’s Central Branch, 201 W. Mifflin St. — because he hopes to bring some informed discussion to the middle.

“Dario has been very interactive with the public on this issue,” says Eric Sandgren, director of UW–Madison’s Research Animal Resource Center and a FARE organizer. “He is one of the few people out there from the scientific community actually engaging people in conversation about the ethics of animal research no matter their background or stated feelings on the topic, and that is exactly the point of FARE.”

The forum, which began in 2011 to provide a venue for discourse on the use of animals in science, is free and open to the public. Speakers — including researchers who conduct experiments that include animals, scientists advocating limited use, philosophers and animal rights leaders — have been chosen by a committee representing campus and the Madison community.

Ringach, who studies the way the brain represents images, knows the arguments of those who oppose animal research well.

He became a target of animal rights groups more than a decade ago while working with non-human primates in his UCLA lab, and his family endured some rough treatment.

“In my case, late at night, anywhere between 30 to 40 people wearing ski masks would surround my house, banging on windows, chanting that they are going to burn the house down,” Ringach says.

A colleague was singled out by activists who left an unlit Molotov cocktail on her doorstep as a message — though they got the address wrong, and delivered it to the scientist’s neighbor.

“When this happens, you are forced to ask yourself what kind of beliefs drive these people to act this way,” Ringach says. “That’s how I got interested in the moral philosophy behind this movement.”

That philosophy is not always articulated by the critics of animal research in a way that acknowledges the true moral dilemma, according to Allyson Bennett, a UW–Madison psychology professor who blogs with Ringach on animal research at speakingofresearch.com.

“The speakers on the animal rights side often do not articulate their position — as in, are there any instances in which your ethics would allow animal research?” Bennett says. “And they will almost never acknowledge that there is any benefit from animal research. You can’t have a genuine discussion about the ethics without that.”

Ringach’s run-in with protestors was well known, but it did not keep him from writing and speaking about the issue.

“What happened to Dario was a wake-up call to the scientific community,” Bennett says, and one example of intimidation she worries will keep grad students from entering academic research, and chase the work into parts of the world that have not established the sort of structure and oversight established in the United States.

While it was terrifying for Ringach and his family, the experience did not keep him from conducting research with animal models. These days his lab includes mice in its work. And it only served to focus his thinking on the animal research issue.

“I felt an obligation to defend work that I think is producing the benefits that will improve the lives of my children and the children of others. There are lives at stake here,” says Ringach, who plans to leave plenty of time for discussion with the audience after his FARE presentation. “And I believe scientists have the obligation to talk to people about their work, but you should not be obligated to talk to someone who says it is justifiable to kill you.”

To read more about Professor Ringach’s activities within FARE, check out his writings in this area and about the FARE series:

Extending a Public Conversation on the Ethics of Animal Research

The following is commentary by Prof. Robert Streiffer on a previous post by Dario Ringach. It was originally published on a UW-Madison website but  was subsequently removed.  It is being republished here with his permission, with Dario’s reply to it being published on SR tomorrow.

On March 11, 2013, Rick Marolt and I engaged in a public conversation about the ethics of animal research. Dario Ringach, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at UCLA and contributor to the blog, Speaking of Research, posted an entry with questions and comments about the exchange. I wanted to take this opportunity to extend the public conversation by responding to Professor Ringach. I appreciate Ringach’s attention to our exchange on this significant issue, but some of his criticisms are based on misinterpretations of what I said, and so I welcome this opportunity to clarify my remarks (some of which were probably quite cryptic), respond to some of his criticisms, highlight areas where he and I agree, and acknowledge one issue where I overstated my concern. (I should note that I am only considering Ringach’s remarks as they concern my part of the conversation.)

Ringach’s comments relevant to my remarks are in the sections of his post entitled “The good,” The curious”, “Mind the gap,” “the bad,” and “the inconsistent,” and I will address them in that order.

The Good
Let me begin by expressing my appreciation for Ringach’s expression of support for the event. I think that engaging in this kind of public dialogue about the ethics of animal research helps overcome the polarization of the debate, and helps improve peoples’ understanding of both the scientific and ethical aspects of animal research. In addition, participating in these kinds of public discussions is a core part of the service component of my job as a professor at a public university. So, I am grateful for Ringach’s supportive words on this point.

The Curious:
Ringach is puzzled by the fact that Marolt and I spent such a long time discussing utilitarianism. I agree that the discussion of utilitarianism went on for too long. The intention was to start with utilitarianism and then to spend more time exploring other frameworks. However, contrary to what Ringach claims, we did not assume that scientists are always utilitarians, or that the only justification for animal research must appeal to utilitarianism. First, I noted that most people who support animal research think that utilitarianism does not correctly capture our obligations to human beings. Second, I pointed out that even though supporters of animal research sometimes describe themselves as utilitarians-when-it comes-to-animals-but-rights-theorists-when-it comes-to human-beings (whom I refer to as “hybrid utilitarians”), they are probably not accurately characterizing their own views. For example, I expect that when they reflect on their obligations to their own pets, they probably believe that there are ways in which it would be wrong to treat their pets even though doing so would maximize utility.

Nonetheless, both utilitarianism and hybrid utilitarianism are commonly invoked or are implicitly presupposed in attempts to justify animal research, and so do merit discussion.

As an example of one non-utilitarian view, Ringach’s cites his own article, “The Use of Nonhuman Animals in Biomedical Research.” The “sliding-scale” framework he presents there is certainly not utilitarian. It accords rights to individuals that are “able to participate as autonomous rational agents in our moral community,” it accords a higher degree of moral status to individuals with a higher degree of “cognitive, affective, and social complexity” (although he later modifies the framework so that an individual’s moral status is affected by his or her relational properties), and it requires that the interests of individuals with a higher moral status be given priority over the interests of individuals with a lower degree of moral status. But Ringach never specifies how the sliding-scale framework adjudicates a conflict of interest between individuals who don’t have rights and who possess the same degree of moral status, and so, for all he has said, the sliding-scale framework could still take a utilitarian form with respect to such conflicts. If it does, such a framework would still be subject to a concern similar to the one I raised about utilitarianism and hybrid utilitarianism.

That concern notwithstanding, I highly recommend Ringach’s article as a presentation of the pro-animal-research position. It is one of the few papers by a scientist that explicitly and concisely explores not just several of the empirical aspects of the debate but also many of the philosophical aspects as well. And I certainly endorse Ringach’s call for more scientists to publicly discuss their views on the science and ethics of animal research rather than to leave it to others to speculate and hypothesize about what their views are.

Mind the Gap
Ringach is correct that discussing examples of actual research that Marolt would find ethical would have helpfully highlighted some common ground and led to a more productive and balanced discussion. I will try to keep this in mind for future reference.

I would note, though, that this point needs to be applied in a fair way: many animal researchers are reluctant to publicly discuss examples of actual research that they find unethical, even though doing so would also help highlight common ground and lead to more productive and balanced discussions. For example, Ringach’s article which I mentioned above never acknowledges any actual examples of unethical animal research.

The Bad
In this section, Ringach presents what appears to be his most pressing concern. It stems from my concurrence with Marolt’s view that, if all a study does is produce knowledge for a researcher or a community of researchers without that knowledge ever ultimately leading to any further benefits, then the knowledge produced is not a very significant benefit. Ringach says that this view, which he inaccurately summarizes in the words “knowledge is not a significant benefit,” is an “insult to reason” that betrays a misunderstanding of the scientific process and a failure to appreciate negative results in science. Ringach thinks that this view implies that I must not see much value in abstract mathematics, space exploration, physics, or astronomy, and that I must be “oblivious” to the fact that basic research has led to many medical imaging technologies.

I won’t speak for Marolt, but Ringach’s concerns here regarding what I said are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the two key points I was making and ignores almost the entirety of what I said regarding them. I therefore welcome this opportunity to clarify and expand on my views.

The first key point I was making is that there is a distinction between knowledge and benefit per se and that research, in the first instance, produces knowledge, not benefit. The phrases “in the first instance” and “per se” are important here. While knowledge often leads to benefits, research can produce knowledge without producing any benefit at all. However, this conceptual point does not imply that research that does not produce benefits is not valuable, as there is also a distinction between the concept of a benefit, which I take to be an improvement in individual well-being, and the more general concept of value. It is thus perfectly consistent to say that something is not itself a benefit and that it does not lead to benefits while maintaining that it is nonetheless valuable. Indeed, I explicitly stated that there are significant kinds of knowledge worth spending a fair bit of money on even if they do not actually improve anyone’s well-being.

Nor do these conceptual points imply that basic research has not led to many beneficial technologies. I even mentioned one of Ringach’s examples, space exploration, saying that although it is often used as a stock example of research that doesn’t produce improvements in individuals’ well-being, it actually has produced all kinds of ancillary benefits, and that funding it would be justified even if it hadn’t. Marolt and I did not discuss the other examples of abstract mathematics, etc., but I would make the same two points about those. They often produce benefits in unanticipated ways, and they can be justified by the value of the knowledge they produce even if they did not in fact produce improvements in individual well-being.

However, the second key point I made is that, when one is evaluating research that harms and kills animals, the moral threshold is higher than it is with other academic pursuits: that kind of research cannot be justified merely on the grounds that it produces knowledge if that knowledge is “totally unrelated to anything practical” (by which I meant “totally unrelated to improving individual well-being”). Ringach’s objections to this point, examples of basic research leading to medical imaging technology, are logically irrelevant, since the basic research that led to their development was not totally unrelated to anything practical: it ultimately led to beneficial technologies. None of Ringach’s examples are of the right form to constitute an objection to either of the two key points I was making at this point in the dialogue.

In my remarks, I also acknowledged the difficulty in evaluating, before the fact, whether specific animal research will be related to improvements in individual well-being. Even if some animal research, tragically, didn’t result in any knowledge at all, that alone wouldn’t show that the original decision to pursue the research was unjustified. In some cases, it would have been reasonable at the onset of the research to think it would ultimately contribute to benefits significant enough to justify the research, even if eventually it did not.

I do agree that I was overly dismissive of what can be learned from poorly designed experiments or experiments that fail to produce the intended knowledge. I am appreciative of the audience member who pressed me on this during the Q&A, at which point I did concede that one can learn something even from poorly designed or unsuccessful experiments and that both positive and negative results can lead to benefits. However, I’ve never heard of an IACUC approving research that involves harming and killing animals, when they believe the research to be poorly designed or believe that it would not produce the intended knowledge, merely in the hopes that we might learn something useful. So I don’t think that this concession has much practical import.

The Inconsistent
Ringach notes that I voted against Ned Kalin’s protocol on the grounds that the value of the data did not justify the harms to the animals, especially given other research avenues that would also benefit those suffering from anxiety disorders, even though they would not directly answer Kalin’s specific scientific question. But Ringach wonders how it is then consistent for me to also acknowledge, as I did, that I didn’t fully understand the details of the analyses the researchers were going to perform on the brain tissue of the moneys to establish the molecular pathways involved in anxiety.

Perhaps I am missing Ringach’s point, but it seems to me that there is no inconsistency here at all. Given what Kalin and the other scientists on the Committees said, it seemed reasonable for me to defer to their expertise and assume that the protocol’s proposed analyses would establish which molecular pathways were involved in anxiety. I then had to decide how important I considered that knowledge to be. Just as I don’t need to fully understand how Google Maps produces its maps to evaluate how useful they are, I also don’t need to fully understand how Kalin was going to answer his scientific question to have a view about its importance. I think this is often the situation with individual IACUC members, both scientists and non-scientists alike: they don’t need to understand every single scientific detail of the methods to have a reasonable and informed opinion about the significant of the anticipated findings. (Of course, the committee as a whole needs to have, or have access to, sufficient expertise to evaluate scientific validity of the protocols they review.)

In closing, I appreciate Ringach’s contribution to this particular discussion as well as his work encouraging public dialogue more generally, and I hope that my responses here further advance the discussion.

Robert Streiffer, Ph. D.
Associate Professor of Bioethics and Philosophy
University of Wisconsin, Madison

Society for Neuroscience encourages scientists to speak up for animal research

A standing room only crowd of over 200 heard a panel of two scientists, a public relations expert and a reporter describe the whys and hows of discussing the use of animals in research (CAR) at the recent Society for Neuroscience meeting.   The panel was sponsored by the Society’s committee on animals in research and led by the committee’s outgoing chair Sharon Juliano.  It was part encouragement for speaking up and part a primer on how to do it effectively.

David Friedman, from the Wake Forest School of Medicine and a member of CAR, has long been engaged in defending the use of animals in research. He led off with an impassioned call for scientists themselves to engage the public.  He pointed out that most scientists who use animals in their work do little or nothing to help the public understand what it is they do and why it’s important.  Noting that animal researchers are doing morally admirable work and in today’s climate are courageous for doing it, he called on researchers to be proud of their good work and defend it vigorously.

Dario Ringach, from UCLA hit similar themes in his presentation on the top five reasons we should talk to the public about animal research. He cited a variety of surveys showing support for animal research, including one that found that more scientists believe in the importance of animal research than believe in evolution.  He went on to argue for greater transparency from the research community to build public confidence and for scientists to weigh in on the ethical challenges posed by animal activists.

Lisa Newbern, chief of public relations at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center laid out the nuts and bolts of how to speak to the public effectively.  Among her points were that practicing what you want to say is important and that interactions with the public should be a dialogue and not just one way communication.

The final speaker was Tom Whipple a British reporter for The Times of London, who has extensive experience in covering animal activism and other forms of anti-science zealotry.  He noted how concerted effort in England had turned the tide against the activists. He cited the case of a protest against genetically engineered wheat that had derailed a research project until the scientists themselves stepped and made their case.

The crowd as largely younger scientists and students, and the lively discussion period that followed the presentations, showed just how engaged they are.  A number of speakers described their own experiences that supported the points the panel had made.

This is the second year in a row that the room was full for the annual “animal panel,” a hopeful sign that more scientists will be engage with the public about their work.

Public Outreach – A Toolkit for Investigators

That public outreach is an increasingly important part of the scientific life in the 21st century should be news to no-one, and this is as true of biomedical research as of any other field of scientific endeavor. Allyson Bennett has written extensively for us on this subject, highlighting both the benefits of public outreach, and the perils of not engaging in it.

Of course getting involved in public outreach and education can be a daunting prospect if you have no previous experience of it, which is why we support initiatives such as the Michael D. Hayre Fellowship in Public Outreach, and recently launched our “Many Voices Speaking of Animal Research” series that highlights different approaches to public outreach, the most recent of which focused on community engagement at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

This week we are pleased to welcome a new initiative to the growing list of resources available to support public outreach.

The American Physiological Society has launched the online resource “Public Outreach – A Toolkit for Investigators” which offers scientists and scientific institutions advice on engaging with the public on animal research issues. The toolkit includes presentations delivered by Speaking of Research committee members Bill Yates, Dario Ringach and Jim Newman at a symposium earlier this year, which examined the topic from a range of perspectives.

We thank the American Physiological Society for making this valuable new resource available to the scientific community.

Speaking of Research