Discussing harms and benefits

1 October 2014

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Category: Staff blog

blood–transfusion.jpgTom Holder, campaigns manager, discusses the importance of open communication of both the benefits and harms of animal research.

Animal research is not a debate between medical progress and animal suffering – it’s a question of finding an acceptable balance between the two. 

It’s true, animal research is a polarising subject. Those who conduct or support it often focus on the benefits accrued, while those opposed tend to focus on the harms it imposes on the animals.

Some animal rights groups try to deny that animal research remains an important part of medical development, sometimes going as far as to create revisionist versions of past medical breakthroughs. The National Anti Vivisection Society, for instance, claims (without any evidence) that:

"The introduction of blood transfusion was delayed over 200 years because of misleading results of animal experiments”

(A detailed rebuttal can be found here and a brief history of blood transfusions here)

However, the overwhelming majority of researchers (92% vs. 3% against) agree that animal research is “essential to the advancement of biomedical science”.

On the other hand, few, if any, scientists believe that animals don’t experience some measure of pain, suffering or distress (PSD) in labs. The potential source of disagreement between animal researchers and animal welfare groups comes down to what level of PSD should be considered acceptable for any given piece of research. Few would advocate experiments involving “severe pain, suffering or distress; or long-lasting moderate pain, suffering or distress” (definition of a severe procedure) in order to find a better hayfever medicine, but many would consider it acceptable in order to trial a promising treatment for Parkinson’s (provided all efforts to minimise PSD were taken).

It is impossible to create a clear set of rules to determine exactly what research would be acceptable (benefits outweigh harms), or unacceptable (harms outweigh benefits). Instead researchers must submit their projects to their institute’s Animal Welfare Ethical Review Body (AWERB), made up of scientists, people with responsibility for animal welfare and, normally, a lay person (not involved in animal research). Legally they must contain at least one Named Animal Care and Welfare Officer (NACWO; senior lab member with day-to-day responsibility for the animals). The AWERB must also take advice from the Named Veterinary Surgeon, who will usually also be on the AWERB.

So how, and when, do we mention harms and benefits? Over 80 institutions which conduct animal research pledged to be “clear about when, how and why we use animals in research” as part of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research in the UK. This first commitment goes on to say that institutions should “provide accurate descriptions of the benefits, harms and limitations of such research, be realistic about the potential outputs of such research, and be open about its impact on animal welfare and the ethical considerations”. 

Does that mean mentioning harms in every communiqué? Probably not. A short press release about a new scientific discovery including a mention of the use of animals (a mention, which only five years ago most university press offices were leaving out), probably has little space for much information about potential or actual PSD to the animals involved.And the 140 character Tweet accompanying the press release is very unlikely to go into full details.But the peer-reviewed scientific paper that the press release is publicising should feature a description of exactly what happened to the animals, including the strategies used to mitigate PSD.

 Some researchers may sense an impending imbalance in how harms and benefits are reported in the media. The scientific community is binding itself to discussing both, yet those opposed are free to mention only the harms – often overstating what those harms actually are. Descriptions of animals being “cut open while they are still alive” do not mention the anaesthetic aimed at mitigating pain or distress. Indeed, we carry out similar surgical operations on humans in hospitals around the country every day.

However, the payoff exists – if scientists can be trusted to discuss both the benefits and harms of animal research then the media may feel less inclined to get additional opinions from animal rights groups who are sometimes less honest with the facts.

Last edited: 2 October 2014 13:17