Mirjam Guesgen

Freelance Science Writer

I am a freelance science writer currently based in Toronto, Canada, with a particular interest in animal welfare.

I love communicating complex, scientific ideas in an engaging, balanced, thought-out and informative way.

The Election and animals Part II

Misconception 2: Scientists are evil and torture animals

You need only look at videos like this one to see what some people think of in terms of using animals in research, including cosmetic or drug testing. The picture painted here and by a number of animal rights groups is one of total chaos, where the use of animals in research is unregulated, uses crazy procedures and huge numbers of animals. Such groups (and apparently also 88% of New Zealanders) see a total ban on using animals in research as the best solution. But is this the best, or even only, way?

 Image courtesy of Mark Large, Daily Mail

Image courtesy of Mark Large, Daily Mail

As a scientist, I want to give you the inside scoop (so to speak) on how science is conducted and regulated. In order for us to do anything with any animal, we need to have Animal Ethics Committee approval. To get this approval we must demonstrate that we will and have done The Three Rs: Replace, Reduce, Refine.

Replace means using an alternative to animals in the experiment. This could be vitro methods, computer models, or micro-dosing (more information here and here). This means if a suitable alternative exists, we must use it. If there is no other way, we need to show mathematically that the number of animals we’re using is the fewest it can possibly be to see any significant result (Reduce). Once we have the minimum number of animals possible, we then outline in great detail what we’ll be doing, who will be doing it, and how we will minimize any potential distress or pain to the animal. This is the refinement part and is often accompanied by suggestions from veterinary experts. Refinement means that we do not conduct tests like those advertised in many animal rights campaigns (which are totally out-dated). Only if the study gains approval can it go ahead, and if it does, we are held accountable for our actions.

I say this is a stringent process, but it may surprise you to hear that scientists (although I can’t speak for all) are not only willing but wanting to go through it. I recently went to a scientific conference where the talks centred around how to improve cages for lab animals, how to accurately measure welfare compromise, how to promote play and happiness in farm and lab animals, and the list goes on!

I absolutely recognise that this is a difficult subject. The procedures used to test potentially helpful cancer drugs may also be used to test party pills. How do we morally weigh up the benefits versus the costs to animals? Having said that, I myself can only begin to think about this moral issue if I am properly informed about what is currently happening. Only that way can we make sensible decisions about how to improve the situation.