Monday, December 12, 2005

Animal rights and research

One of the most difficult aspects of modern research is the use of animals and the appropriate way to treat and care for the animals used in experiments. Although many animal experiments today are done under full ethical controls and attempt to minimise the harm done to the animals in question, this wasn't always the case. Before the development of proper ethics boards some incredibly cruel and often brutal experiments have been performed on animals, some of which have been of less than valid scientific quality as well. Unfortunately, it is the historical precedents that the modern animal rights movement uses for PR in its attempt to ban all forms of animal research, such as shutting down the construction on a new animal lab at Oxford.

It is however good to see that many scientists have begun to respond to the militant animal rights movements, by for example becoming more transparent about the research they are performing. Additionally, public education about why scientists use animals in their research and the way the animals are treated are apparently having an effect. Finally, new laws to protect researchers and the facilities in question are all reducing the amount of influence the militant animal rights movement has.
But official figures show that in the past year or so the number of extremist attacks has fallen. New laws proposed shortly after the halt to building work in Oxford last year have helped. Introduced this summer, they make it illegal to protest outside people’s homes if this causes “harassment, alarm or distress”, and to use harassment to inflict economic damage on a company. At the same time researchers have changed tactics. Instead of avoiding the public eye, they are being more open about their work and educating the public about the benefits of animal research to medicine.
This has been needed for some time, because there is nothing worse to make people think there is a conspiracy than hiding behind a wall of secrecy. The public does have a right to know how scientists use animals in their research and the reasons why an animal is being used instead of using a computer simulation for example. It's certainly not because scientists enjoy torturing animals in experiments as some animal rights groups would have the public imagine, but instead it's because in many areas of biomedical science especially animals are the best way to figure something out (particularly about disease interactions). Animals are, after all, extremely expensive to use in research and cheaper, more effective alternatives are nearly always used where available if they can get the same results.

Like many reactions of the public against certain aspects of science, the only way to improve the situation is through improved education, plus communication between the general public and the scientists actually doing the research.