By Dr. Michael W. Brunt, Postdoctoral Researcher, Ontario Veterinary College
This article is republished from The Conversation Canada under Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Approximately five million animals are used for scientific or educational purposes in Canada each year. The use of animals in general, especially for research, can be divisive.
Recently, there have been high-profile instances of public outcry and groups questioning the benefits and oversight of animal research. This could lead to the total or partial abolition of animal research and its life-saving applications. As non-animal alternatives continue to replace live animals, animal research will always be necessary to achieve scientific and medical advances.
The animal experience
The negative public perception of animal research can be partly explained by animal rights groups spreading the message – sometimes quite aggressively – that all animal use must be stopped.
While these groups often have valid concerns about the lack of information about the experiences of these animals, this does not change how animal research has played such a vital role in improving human and animal health. .
Animal rights activists speak out about the experiences of research animals, while the institutions where animal research is conducted are often secretive about how the animals are cared for and what research they participate in. It creates a one-sided narrative that resonates with the audience, as most people don’t condone animal suffering.
Ignorance of animal research, combined with this narrative, can cause moral conflict. My research examines the role of institutional transparency in the public’s understanding of the use of animals in scientific research and the supposed authorization of it.
Freedom of commitment
For activities to be carried out in society, especially those that are controversial such as animal research, some kind of permission from the general public is needed. This is called “social license”. A social license gives a profession the freedom to carry out its duties with the acknowledgment by society that it does not understand the profession well enough to regulate it directly, but at the same time trusts the sector to self-regulate from in a way that respects societal values.
In most developed countries, research in universities is publicly funded and the knowledge it provides is of public interest. As such, institutions should engage continuously with the public to ensure that current research practices reflect the evolving values of the community they represent. Without it, certain activities become taboo and may be prohibited altogether.
Scientists cannot conduct any research with animals. In Canada, a protocol describing the intended use of animals, as well as the potential benefits of the experiments, must be approved by an animal care committee at each facility. This is mandated by the Canadian Council on Animal Care and must be approved for institutions to receive public funding to conduct animal research.
An animal care committee must involve, at a minimum, a veterinarian, a scientist conducting research with animals, and at least one member of the public unaffiliated with the establishment. Committees often also include additional perspectives. While this process is not without flaws, it attempts to address concerns about experiences raised by committee members.
Unfortunately, the public is generally unaware of this process, so the discussions and decisions made by these committees, even if they involve a member of the public, are not enough to maintain social acceptability.
To maintain social acceptability, meaningful dialogue involving people of diverse backgrounds and opinions is necessary. For this, any interested member of the public must have access to basic information on animal research.
This is currently difficult, as a large public is generally not involved in the process of deciding how animals will be used for research. Institutions can encourage meaningful public dialogue by being transparent about their experiences and policies involving animals.
However, transparency must first be defined and accepted by all stakeholders of an institution. My studies of research animal facility managers and treating veterinarians have shown that interpretations of institutional transparency vary within and between Canadian universities.
Some would have liked their institution to view transparency as the release of information for the sake of openness, while others described transparency as a means of educating or manipulating public opinion in favor of animal research. . Some view transparency negatively because they fear it will foster opposition to animal research. Sustained communication will be needed to build consensus on how to pursue transparency in a truthful and respectful manner.
In addition to internal discussions within an institution, external factors could greatly help achieve transparency. These could include specific requirements from national granting agencies or some form of transparency agreement by individual institutions, as is currently the case in the UK and across Europe.
This is important, as the lack of institutional motivation to change transparency practices in Canada was a barrier raised by the veterinarians present during their interviews.
Some members of the scientific community may doubt that the general public has the necessary knowledge to make a useful contribution regarding the use of animals for scientific experimentation.
My research soliciting public input on proposed animal experiments found that participants provided practical and nuanced input that could aid in institutional decision-making.
This type of public input would provide institutions with a better understanding of societal concerns, such as the severity of animal suffering, and reduce the risk that research practices are out of step with community values.
There is no single solution to this complex and value-laden problem.
Some scholars have recommended a “new openness” approach that provides various opportunities for the public to participate when and how they see fit.
Furthermore, I suggest that the publication of information on animal research be presented as the beginning of a journey that will involve discussions, collaborations and negotiations. This can lead to better decisions for animals used in research by further aligning the research community and society at large.
Frédéric Chatigny, clinical veterinarian, co-author of this article