UAR Staff Blog: A Stitch In Time

2 September 2014

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Category: Staff blog

uar-staff-blog-time.jpgHead of Education and Outreach John Meredith takes a minute to look at how a failure to understand time can confuse the debate about animal research. 

It is common enough to talk about the pros and cons of animal research in utilitarian or cost/benefit terms and from that point of view it seems to most of us that the research is justified, that the huge benefits to human beings from modern medicines and treatments vastly outweigh the costs to animals in discomfort or even suffering and, sometimes, pain.

But playing the numbers game can be misleading. Anybody who has debated with an animal rights or anti-vivisection group will have heard the argument that very often large numbers of animals are used in pursuit of medical benefits that only affect a small number of people, or only provide a marginal benefit such as small increase in expected survival time. At first sight this can seem like a reasonable point. Can it be right to ‘sacrifice’, let’s say, 1,000 mice to find a treatment that may only be of use to (for the sake of argument) half a dozen people a year? It seems disproportionate. But only if we forget the vastness of time.

You see, human life on Earth, by most conservative estimates, is set to be around for at least another 500 million years or so. And we have to assume that medical science will be around for the same amount of time, saving and improving human lives. So our hypothetical six people a year, over the course of human history, add up to something like three billion people benefiting from a treatment developed with those 1,000 hypothetical mice. Seen in that light the cost/benefit analysis looks very different.

Even if we invent an extreme example and imagine a new treatment that would only increase a single person’s life span by a single day each year, we find, over the course of the 500 million years that we have left, more than 17,000 lifetimes saved (estimating a human life at about 80 years). Of course, no treatment with such a limited projected application would ever be approved for animal study, but really, from a strictly cost/benefit or utilitarian point of view it would be hard to argue against it.

All of this seems very much to the point as the death toll for Ebola, one of the world’s most famous rare diseases, tops 1,000 in west Africa without any confirmed effective treatment. Of course Ebola is nasty, whisper the voices from the wings: but really it is only 1,000 people in the worst outbreak for years, you are so much more likely to be run over by a car in Liberia than contract the virus. Can it be worth the lives of thousands, even tens of thousands, of mice and monkeys to find a cure? The answer is easy: Yes it can. If we remember to include all future Ebola victims in our calculations, it is obvious that it must.

So, once again, the arguments of the anti-animal-research lobby really don’t stack up when they are examined coolly, with heads rather than hearts.Time changes everything, even this. If we take it properly into account using animals for medical research provides more benefit, alleviates more suffering, saves more lives than any harm it causes by any measure we can think of. They say that time heals all wounds. It doesn’t. But, who knows, maybe one day science might, given the right tools and enough time.

Last edited: 29 September 2014 11:56