RSPCA and GCSE science

26 March 2010

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Category: Schools education

website–rspca.jpgThe RSPCA's latest foray into schools education is a smart new web resource for GCSE science with a substantial chunk dedicated to exploring the ethics of animal research.

There are polls, quick quizzes, factoids and news items to keep things lively but at the heart of the resource are two complex, sophisticated learning activities, The Ethics court and The value of life.

The Ethics court is the most ambitious and involved of these and is the one that deals directly with the issue of animals in medical research. Of the seven 'controversial' statements that students can choose to explore within the Ethics court, two deal explicitly with the use of animals for medical research purposes – either veterinary or human.

The activity aims to be neutral and balanced allowing students to make up their own minds based on a fair representation of views for and against, and it does a pretty good job on the whole. The facts about animal research seem to be about right and the familiar arguments pro and con are given equal time and space.

But, perhaps unsurprisingly, a certain bias does creep in. It may be fair to comment that the RSPCA considers progress in replacement of animal procedures with non-animal ones to be too slow, for example, but to attribute that lack of progress only to difficulties in changing regulations, the resistance of researchers or the lack of information, resources or commitment does seem a little tendentious. Is it not at least possible that finding replacements is just very, very hard? That the animal model is, in many cases, currently the only way to get results?

Elsewhere it is clearly stated that testing for cosmetic purposes is illegal in the UK, so why immediately afterwards bring up botulinum toxin which is tested on animals and which, we are told, is 'used in the cosmetic procedure that temporarily removes wrinkles and frown lines from the skin'? It feels like someone is putting their thumb on the scale to me. Of course botulinum does have a cosmetic application, but that is not why animal tests are permitted, as the activity developers are surely aware.

In fact, after bringing up wrinkles and frown lines, RSPCA does acknowledge that botulinum is also used to 'treat some painful conditions', but the context makes this appear a secondary consideration (the opposite of the truth) and it seems like a grudging way to refer to a raft of medical applications that include treatments for Parkinson's disease, hemifacial spasm and cervical dystonia.

Still, even with these grumbles (and several other examples that could be offered up if we really wanted to be picky), it should be said that these new activities are – on the whole – attractive, well designed, well constructed, clearly thought through and substantially educational. They could make a real contribution to science teaching at GCSE.

In case you were wondering, when I last looked over half the users were still agreeing with the statement that 'we should keep using animals in research and testing so we can improve drugs for people' .