Experimental Biology Blogging: Getting Scientists to Speak Up in the Animal Research Debate

Sci has, of course, returned from #EB2011 (that's Experimental Biology 2011 for those not on Twitter).  She is still in the later stages of recovery.  I don't know about you guys, but conferences always end up with me being ill from something or other. Be that as it may, Experimental Biology Blogging CONTINUES. Though I've covered all of the straight up science, now I'll be going through some of the other sessions I went to, sessions on outreach and funding, from the NIH director Francis Collins to sessions on grad students and outreach.

So far, the sessions I went to can be summed up easily in one sentence: SCIENTISTS NEED TO SPEAK UP. But for many scientists, it's not quite that simple.

The first session I went to was a session on Saturday afternoon called "Science, Scientist, Advocate: Making the Case for Increased Funding for Biomedical Research" sponsored by the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. The panel featured several speakers talking about aspects of federal research funding, and what we need to do to increase it (the answer: speak up). But what caught my attention was two of the speakers speaking on animal research, namely the sessions "Legislative issues and advocacy: use of animals in biomedical research" by M. R. Bailey of the National Association for Biomedical Research and "Advocating for animal research – what's a grad student to do?" by E. J. Burnett, one of the current Hayre Fellows for Public Outreach with Americans for Medical Progress. I found both of these sessions to be incredibly informative (the first kind of the depressing, the second uplifting), and had the luck to be able to sit down with the Hayre Fellow and the Vice President for Americans for Medical Progress, Kristen Bocanegra, where we talked a little more about the situation with Animal Research Activism, and what scientists can do to promote their work and the ethical use of animals in research.

The following is a summary of our conversation (being a not real reporter, I has no tape recorder), and some of my thoughts. So I guess it's kind of an editorial? Anyway.

I'll begin with some of my thoughts on the presentation by Mr. Bailey, the Vice President for the National Association for Biomedical Research. Bailey correctly pointed out that animal research plays a significant role in medical advancement and in the discovery of new drugs, benefitting human and animal health through the development of new drugs and technologies and the increase in information about human and animal physiology.

But there are of course people who have grave concerns about the use of animals in research. And that's ok. This is not a black and white issue, and different ethical codes promote different measures of animal welfare and animal use, from none at all to whatever we care to do. Most people fall somewhere in the middle, recognizing the use of animals for food, clothing, and medical research as being of great benefit, but acknowledging that we have great responsibility for their welfare.

The problem is that those who believe in ethical animal use often have their voices drowned out, both on the internet, and increasingly on Capitol Hill, by those who believe that any use of animals is unethical. The groups have a lot of money and a lot of presence, and a great ability to generate letters from constituents (as the girls from AMP told me, they can make 50 people sound like 5000). They are relatively small, but extremely vocal. And they can introduce legislation on things like the Farm Bill, which would impact the animal welfare act. Or the BEST act (Battlefield Excellence through Superior Training), which would end live animal use in military medical training (though what about this would help promote battlefield excellence, I'm not sure). The best example so far is the Great Ape Protection Act, which, though it sounds like a great idea (who doesn't want to protect great apes?) prohibits most invasive research. This wouldn't be a bad thing, except that they have defined invasive research very broadly, including things like blood draws. Great Apes, particularly chimpanzees, have an immune system very close to that of humans. Chimp research is responsible for the development of the Hepatitis A and B vaccines, and work on Hepatits C, a disease which affects up to 300 million people worldwide, currently ongoing. This research would be prevented is the Great Ape Protection Act in its current form were to pass.

But scientists have remained peculiarly silent on these issues. Part of the reason is that we are not ENCOURAGED to speak up. Our funding sources want research results, not outreach. Another reason is that some of the Animal Rights Organizations are pursuing policies that go far beyond state and federal legislation. Policies including violence and threats against research, which leave many people scared and afraid to speak out. Threats have included murder, and there have been car bombings and razor blades in the mail.

What is the solution to this? Bailey says we need to be active on Capitol Hill, and active on a personal level, bringing people in to our labs, to see exactly what we do and how carefully we work. Being active on Capitol Hill doesn't necessarily mean going in person to advocate. He pointed out that we can advocate by going through our societies, encouraging scientific societies to push for federal funding and to push back against animal research organizations. And he encourages us to speak out, bring people in to our labs, and show them what we do. A lot of the fear of animal research comes from those who have no idea what it is that we do on a regular basis, and no idea how our work can benefit humans and animals down the road.

I then got stayed to hear from Elizabeth Burnett, one of the two current Hayre Fellows for Americans for Medical Progress. While Bailey's talk was a little depressing, pointing out the many ways in which research is under attack, Burnett's talk gave me a lot of hope as she spoke about the development of a new plan for high school and college age biology classes called SHARE: Speaking Honestly Animal Research Education. SHARE is a program based on the development of discussion based classroom activities, fitting easily into a Biology 101 course for a day. The program takes care to engage in open, honest dialogue about what animal research actually entails, who does it, and what kind of knowledge we can gain from it. It also emphasizes the concept of animal welfare, and the role played by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC).

The course is designed around a single case study, with several different animal options, assigned to a small gorup. Burnett noted to me that they are very careful to make sure that all sides are heard, but that all discussion remain respectful, allowing people to speak up and rhetoric to get passionate is fine, but no accusations, insults, or threats against other students are tolerated. And in fact, she mentioned to me that most of their classroom interactions have been peaceful, with students very willing to have a thoughtful and respectful discussion.

As the case study proceeds, the students work out whether an animal model is appropriate, and if it is, what regulations should be in place. The discussion ends up covering survival vs nonsurvival studies, what that means, and what it entails. The case studies are designed specifically to NOT be life or death kind of studies (finding out what a drug does to learning and memory as opposed to say, curing a deadly disease), to give a more realistic idea of basic research, and allow the students to make their own decisions about the ethics of using animals models for such a study. The Hayre fellows go out of their way to be unbiased, and are willing to play devil's advocate for both sides of the issue.

With outreach programs like this, designed to introduce students to the idea of animal welfare, as well as allow them to come to their own decisions about whether careful animal research is of benefit, the Hayre fellows hope to educate students about what animal research is and how it works. And, as Bocanegra noted, this outreach is desperately needed. Right now, activists for animal rights most certainly have the loudest voice, as scientists are either too busy or too scared to speak up.

And the busy part is a very large part of the problem. Grants from NIH fund us to DO research, they don't fund us to TALK about it. They certainly don't fund us to spend valuable research time doing outreach to classrooms or to the public. And academia in general doesn't really reward outreach efforts when people are looked at for promotion or graduation. This is something that may have to change if scientists are to get word out to the public to convince them that what we do is worth supporting...and worth funding.

Another problem is that many scientists still feel that the data...speaks for itself. Look at all the cures, look at all the treatments, surely the public will realize that this is because of us! Unfortunately, there's a major disconnect between the protein you discovered that binds to gene A to release transcript B and the drug you found that controls it, and the drug and its marketing to the masses as a treatment for disease Y. Data these days may speak for itself, but it speaks in a language that only experts understand. People generally don't MAKE the connection that the creams, pills, and syrups they take, often on a daily basis, are the result of years of animal research. Heck, most of the time even I don't really give it a thought, I DO this for a LIVING, and if I don't think about it, I can only imagine that other people don't as well. Much as scientists want to think their work will speak easily to the public and that they don't have time, it won't, and they may need to make the time. And that may mean that academic institutions and funding agencies will have to make outreach important.

Because it IS important. It's important for the public to know what we do and why we do it. It's important for them to know where their tax dollars are going, and for what purpose. It's important for all of us to understand the small steps in basic science that underlie the great strides of modern technology and medicine. But the public won't know that if most scientists duck and cover, avoiding outreach opportunities and just hoping that their grants will get funded in an ever-worsening funding environment.

Luckily, outreach...isn't so hard. Many animal researchers are worried about becoming targets for threats and violence, but you don't necessarily have to stand up and make yourself seen. You can work through your professional societies to talk to people in government. You can write letters to your own government representatives. You can INVITE those representatives into your labs, to see what you do and what it all means. You can go into classrooms and talk about your work, or bring the classrooms to you and show them. You could even write a blog post on the internet. 🙂 By reposting, retweeting, and passing it on, you can spread the word about funding and the necessity of careful animal research. And if all that still seems too much, you can always start with your family and friends. Tell them about what you do. Many of them may not even know. And tell them what it's all for, and what we're going through because of it. Because in this case, when the data speaks in a language only experts can understand, scientists have to stand up and do the talking.

Edited to Add: I will share a link when the SHARE materials go live, but right now they are still in program development. In the meantime, you can get many excellent materials on outreach and advocacy for responsible animal research at Americans for Medical Progress.

15 responses so far

  • Dorid says:

    um... wow. Where to begin on this one?

    I think what struck me most was when you said "The case studies are designed specifically to NOT be life or death kind of studies (finding out what a drug does to learning and memory as opposed to say, curing a deadly disease), to give a more realistic idea of basic research, and allow the students to make their own decisions about the ethics of using animals models for such a study."

    I agreed with just about everything you said up to this point, then got a little worried, because this seems to say that destroying an animals cognitive functions is a lot different than killing the animal.

    I think the problem with current laws and regulations is that they're ill thought out, and too centered on humans. Politicians pass laws protecting animals from research that people relate to as "like themselves". Apes, dogs, cats, mice... they have a "face" and a spine. Yet the regulations for inverts are so lax as to be practically non-existent. Animal protection laws are generally written by those who are uneducated in the science.

    Where to draw the line in what's OK and what isn't in animal research is a tough job, however, and one I can have some empathy for. My own personal feeling is that it's better for the laws to be too tough than too loose, but I would admit that my daughter (who's a biologist) might have a different take. I do think that it's important not to be restrictive on SCIENCE... but here ethical treatment of other animals should be enforced.

    ...and lastly, I have to wonder, since human beings are animals, would we be willing or should we be willing to have these same experiments done on members of our own species? Should this be a measure of what's 'ethical' for other animals? Or does the fact that we are the species who have developed these experimental processes give us the right to chose which species do (and do not) take the risk for scientific development? These are things I don't have the answer for myself, but I can empathize with both sides of the debate, and think, at times, that we need to concern ourselves not only with what is ethical but with what is justifiable and provides the greatest benefit for the cost.

    • scicurious says:

      "I agreed with just about everything you said up to this point, then got a little worried, because this seems to say that destroying an animals cognitive functions is a lot different than killing the animal. "

      I'm sorry, that's not actually what I meant to say. I meant that the studies were not life or death studies in that the findings FROM the study were not a matter of life or death. The studies used as case studies were more about using animal research to advance human knowledge in a way that could impact human health down the road, but right now has no specific application with regards to curing a disease. The studies could be survival or nonsurvival for the animal, depending. Does that make sense? I should have phrased it better.

  • DJ says:

    Thanks for the post. You bring up some excellent points. As you mention, one of the big hurdles is getting individuals scientists to speak up, do outreach, etc...The system as its currently designed just doesn't offer much reward to those who take the time to do so. Going forward, research science as an entity is going to need to do a much better job explaining to the masses why the work we do is important, e.g. connecting the dots for people, showing them how basic research findings lead to products that make their lives better. But, what's in it for the individual scientist who takes the time to do this? Nothing much. No compensation, not much in the way of recognition. Time spent in outreach is time away from the lab. The incentives are just not strong enough.

    The challenge is really getting people to take the time away from their actual work. Or maybe this is a job best accomplished by full-time spokespersons for science - former scientists who clean up well, know how to talk to lay persons about the work, and devote their time exclusively to this issue of informing the public and policy makers about why it's important.

    Thanks for the excellent blog!

  • katiesci says:

    SHARE sounds so cool! Is it a program that will be available to others to use if their data show it is doing what they expect?

    • scicurious says:

      They will be putting the information up on their website. They are currently analyzing the preliminary data from several sessions, and if they see increases in factual knowledge about animal research, welfare, and the role of the IACUC, they will definitely be putting it up. The Hayre fellow emphasized to me that she is not interested in changing opinions, but rather in informing, and making sure that people have an informed opinion in the first place, which I think is extremely important.

      • katiesci says:

        Cool! I agree that informing is more important than trying to change opinions. I would love to do something like this in a classroom.

      • Kaija says:

        This is great info and a great post...I look forward to the publication of the SHARE info and would be interested in using it with a high school student outreach project. I agree that providing factual information and explaining the structural and historical foundation surrounding animal research and the ethics involved is crucial for allowing individuals to develop an informed opinion. Critical thinking and weighing of difficult issues is a personal and citizenship skill that is woefully lost in the scuffle of PR and emotional reaction.

  • Kausik Datta says:

    A great, GREAT post with an extremely important discussion! You have highlighted very accurately the many hindrances to speaking up in favor of animal research. While what you propose in the last paragraph makes eminent sense, I feel that there still has to be some intervention from the official bodies - without which scores of graduate students and postdocs, especially the international researchers, working in animal-based research would not be able or feel confident enough to speak up.

    Official support is important for guidance as well, because sometimes ill-thought out actions can come off as stupid and counter-productive. Close to my university's medical school, there is this huge hoarding that has the picture of a white mouse (possibly Balb/c) adjacent to a little girl - with the caption: "who would you rather save?" Framing the argument for animal research as a matter of the choice of one life over the other sends potentially a wrong message.

  • Allyson J. Bennett says:

    Great post Sci!

    @DJ - Agree that there are many challenges to individual scientists participating in outreach and public engagement, including time pressures, and also that more support for this work is needed. But I also think that it is important for individual scientists to participate and that there are many benefits that are hard to quantify.

    For example, I direct an outreach program whose goal is to provide students with opportunities to learn about primate research. Over the past three years our program has hosted events with hundreds of students and dozens of scientists, graduate students, and others who have volunteered an hour or two. Our feedback from the students clearly indicates that they appreciate the opportunity to interact directly with scientists and others engaged in research. Our feedback from the volunteers indicates that they not only enjoy having the opportunity to discuss their work and answer a range of questions, but that they also feel that this activity enhances their communication and presentation skills.

    While it is true that outreach takes some time, I think that people often overestimate how much it takes and underestimate the range of opportunities for getting involved at different levels. Talking to a community group, classroom, writing an op-ed, blog post, can be relatively small time commitments. There are also existing programs and venues that provide relatively easy opportunities to participate. For example, Speaking of Research is a campus-based advocacy group with a blog that welcomes guest posts about animal research.


  • Paul Browne says:

    Excellent post Sci! I'll join Allyson in saying that Speaking of Research welcomes guest posts, whether you want to write about your own work, that of others in your field, or just an area of research that interests you even though you are not directly involved in it as a scientist.

    I think we have to remember that the problems associated with outreach about animal research are shared with many other areas of science, as DJ mentions above involvement in outreach is not recognized adequately by the broader scientific community (particularly when it comes to career progression) and as a consequence is often regarded as being of very low priority in comparison to research, teaching and adminstrative duties, something to be done in a scientist's spare time, if it is done at all. Combine this with the natural desire of scientists to avoid getting into protracted arguments with cranks (be they anti-vaxers, creationists, anti-vivisectionists, climate skeptics etc.), and all the risks of ambush and the gish gallop that go with such debates, and it's hardly surprising that most leave such efforts to a dedicated few.

    Universities and research funders need to do more to ensure that proactive public outreach and engagement is an integral part of doing research.

    What science advocacy organizations and science blogs need to do is to let scientists know that there are ways in which they can discuss animal research with the public that do not entail risk to themselves and their family, and will not place on them an ongoing burden of expectation that they will devote a large proportion of their time to outreach.

    Through guest posts and articles and shared blogs the workload associated with outreach can be reduced, though in many cases the most effective animal research advocacy will be to simply ensure that the contribution it makes is acknowledged and discussed adequately in press releases, interviews and websites that discuss new discoveries, treatments or research initiatives.

    Some day I hope every University Department or Research Center which uses animals in its research will have a website like this: http://www.fishforscience.com/

  • gerty-z says:

    great post! I don't use mammalian systems myself, but I have given talks to "the general public" about the importance of animal research. It really isn't *that* hard, and it is so important.

  • KS says:

    I want to get behind posts like this. My continued funding is largely dependent on NIH wanting to support drug development. Rationally I know that the animal studies are a critical step to creating desperately needed treatments. The truth of the matter is that while these experiments are critical the reality is that there is also a significant amount of waste in these projects.

    I did animal studies as part of my thesis. In the time I spent in the facility I saw poorly planned and executed experiments. I saw whole colonies of mice sacrificed because the didn't have the right gene and the cost of keeping them was too high. On an average day there would be 10 mice in the sacrificial fridge which was emptied every weekday. Over a year that averages to about 2600 mice and that was only one of three mouse facilities in the medical school making an average of 7800 mice sacrificed at the college of medicine in my university alone.

    I'd like to say that my experience was productive but the fact of the matter was that my experiment was one of those that was poorly planned and executed. The IACUC while providing valuable and necessary oversight isn't foolproof and isn't always equipped with people who can accurately judge whether an experiment is properly thought out. And oftentimes the line of between suffering and data is arbitrary. On top of that, the data massaging that occurs to "prove a result" and validate the enormous cost makes me question even the most legitimate studies.

    I know there are those people like yourself who can keep sight of the forest despite the trees (if you will forgive the metaphor). I was not one of them. I have seen well executed studies that yield oodles of valid and useful data and I fully support funding those studies. I agree that we need to educate the public to continue funding valuable and necessary research, but I think that perhaps the scientists need educating too. Something beyond one lesson in an NIH mandated ethics course. If we can make these studies more effective and minimize the waste I believe that fewer scientists would have to fear the public because they can show progress. But that is just my two cents for what it is worth.

  • Rachel says:

    "Much as scientists want to think their work will speak easily to the public and that they don't have time, it won't, and they may need to make the time. And that may mean that academic institutions and funding agencies will have to make outreach important. "

    I understand my next point is going off on a bit of a tangent, but it's funny how the government thinks "No Child Left Behind" and more of that standardized testing crap will improve the American education system. I'm a college freshman and the text books and lectures I've encountered in my schooling seem to present science in a very insipid fashion since the significance of scientific developments upon the greater society and the ailments that effect them are seldom explained. After I read Medical Apartheid and some of the essays in The Gender of Science for example, the discipline seemed more relevant to my existence. To improve public knowledge, breed more generations of scientists, and I suppose "raise those test scores," colleges and publishing companies need to approach science practically. For example, how did the discovery of competitive inhibitor X facilitate the development of drug Y, which cures ailment W? How did inhibitor X effect notions of the human condition? What social costs went into the discovery of competitive inhibitor X and were they worth it? Of course, this more comprehensive approach may require more money, but I think it would probably improve the "encoding" process of students. If text books invested more in making information relevant and less in colorful, infantile, often needless graphics, and had writers who could actually write, perhaps scientific organizations could do minimal outreach. My collection of science related articles and books are far more inspiring than my text book, but most people get exposed to science primarily through that medium. I wonder how come this unoriginal notion hasn't seemed to have occurred to more universities?

    • Ron says:

      Rachel, What a great post. I hope you consider being an educator--perhaps middle school or high school science teacher would suit you?

  • dryad says:

    A more organized response to the AR mischaracterization of animal research certainly seems like a good thing, although I think most reasonable people are already aware of the smear and scare tactics the AR camp uses.

    I wonder if a more direct approach might work. Certainly there are identifiable groups such as PeTA that produce mountains of propaganda vilifiying animal research. Where the AR claims are outright false, should legals means be employed to hold the propagandists responsible?

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