Dealing with the ethics of animal research as an ECR

Tom Burns gives his advice to early career researchers faced with the dilemma of using animals in their research

July 31, 2018

Research is never easy, nor is adjusting to life as an early career researcher. Nor, too, is dealing with the ethics of animal research. However, for a large number of ECRs – especially in the life sciences – a reality of academic research is the use of animals.

Being a controversial subject, this article does not attempt to impose moral judgement one way or the other on the use of animals in research – that is a debate for another place and is discussed at great length elsewhere. Here, I share some advice from my experience in starting out in these research areas having been involved in experiments with insects, amphibians, rodents and non-human primates. 

When faced with animal research dilemmas, I found three potential paths: accept, revise or pivot.

Accept the realities and norms of current-day research

The fact that animals are used for research in the life sciences will not change in the near term. It is important to accept this at the outset. Whether animal research is conducted in 50 or 100 years is another question, but the answer to this won’t change the reality of animal research today.

Given that fact, we should accept that – whatever we decide – this research will continue, with or without us. We should also accept that if we want to continue on a research career path in an area that regularly relies on animal research, we will likely continue to face the same sort of moral distress that we might experience in our early research career.

When I first shared my distress about the use of animals in research, a more senior colleague immediately empathised and said that he felt the same way. He said that he could cognitively and objectively see a larger picture and project that his research slotted into. In this larger picture, the animal suffering that he inflicted led to a net decrease in human and animal suffering in the long term. 

From speaking with other senior researchers involved in animal experimentation, it seems that this approach to dealing with the ethics of animal research is not uncommon, with one important caveat: the emotional effects tend to become gradually weaker with time. This caveat is important to note for its potential positive consequence of making a long research career less morally distressing. Contrastingly, some may see that as a negative consequence, as a “numbing” of your moral sensitivities.

Revise your research methods

You could continue working with animals but, for example, change your model species. In my case, while I found working with rodents and non-human primates difficult and distressing, I found it emotionally easier to work with insects. This is not to say that I found it totally straightforward or unproblematic; I still felt concern for the insects’ well-being. However, in cases of experimental hiccups (that do and almost always have some possibility of occurring), I felt considerably less moral distress than when experiments with rodents or non-human primates went awry.

Instead of working with another species, it is also worth considering continuing work with the same species but in a less morally distressing way. For example, perhaps it is possible to use less invasive experimental methods or to use proxies such as behaviour for more invasive methods. Alternatively still, you could seek to work with in vitro samples.

In vitro studies can provide highly precise information about specific biological mechanisms in isolation of other mechanisms or processes. And it might be possible to conduct some experiments with insects that we would simply never accept on ethical grounds for higher species.

Pivot to a complementary area of research

This is the option that I eventually chose, and I have been very happy with it so far. Initially, instead of working with animals, I worked with human behavioural data and, for a while, on the periphery of animal experiments, helping to analyse pre-existing datasets. Now, I have transitioned towards computational and modelling work. This has forced me to gain new skills, especially in programming and mathematics.

I certainly miss the scientific power of being able to directly experiment with biological systems. But I also enjoy having the scientific freedom to explore almost any question that springs to mind without having to seriously ponder the moral implications or restrictions. 

Ultimately, the decision to accept, revise or pivot must be made by each individual. I recommend speaking with a wide variety of people and remaining cognisant of the experiences from which they speak: a venerable professor who has conducted animal experiments almost every day of their working life will naturally have a vastly different perspective from an early career researcher who has been involved in a limited number of animal experiments and transitioned to computational and modelling research.

Tom Burns is a PhD student at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University.

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