The Lack of Ethics in Animal Ethics Committees

Spencer Lo

Like factory farming, animal experimentation is an entrenched practice, one which causes extensive suffering to millions of animals per year despite the poor justification in terms of human benefits. Bioethicist Dr. Andrew Knight, author of the book “The Costs and Benefits of Animal Experiments,” discussed the ethical problems of animal experimentation and related issues over at ARZone (see also here). Because of the problems with justification, a welcome development is the continuing search for alternatives to animal testing, and animal ethics committees (AECs) set up to scrutinize research proposals are required to consider such alternatives before granting approval, as part of their mandate to ensure compliance with the 3Rs—the principles of Reduction, Refinement, and Replacement. In Australia, for instance, a guiding principle in the Australian Code of Practice is to “promote the development and use of techniques that replace the use of animals in scientific and teaching activities.” The Replacement Principle gained further strength in 2008 with the following guideline: “if a viable alternative method exists that would partly or wholly replace the use of animals in a project, the Code requires investigators to use that alternative.” Thus, at face value, it appears that animal experimentation can be carefully scrutinized and suffering minimized, with animal use permitted only for the most important reasons.  

However, as Professor Denise Russell explained in a recent paper, despite the strong regulatory language in the Code, there are a number of structural problems with AECs that render compliance with the Replacement Principle practically ineffective, and many of them likely apply to AECs in other countries.

  1. Confidentiality agreements
  2. Problem of the independent member
  3. Problem of the scientific member or members
  4. No mechanism either inside or outside the Animal Ethics Committees to deal with moral dilemmas of some members.
  5. Animal Ethics Committees are the end of the approval process
  6. It is difficult for-incoming researchers in disciplines using animal research to buck the tread and consider alternatives.
  7. Alternatives are being developed in new subject fields that may be a great distance from the traditional animal-based research disciplines.

The most significant structural defects are (3), (6) and (7), which are related. Most research proposals involving animal testing come from traditional disciplines where animal experimentation has been the norm, such as biology, pharmacology, physiology, and psychology. However, the trend for non-animal based alternatives is occurring in non-traditional disciplines, like human biotechnology and information technology, which are areas normally unfamiliar to researchers immersed in the traditional disciplines. Researchers in the traditional disciplines, with no training in alternatives, are thus asked to consider alternatives from fields outside of their educational backgrounds. Moreover, because the scientific members on AECs are required to have “substantial recent experience in the use of animals in scientific or teaching activities”—i.e., scientists from traditional disciplines—informed discussion about alternatives during the deliberation process is unlikely. Russell highlights the problem as follows:

For example, if the researcher’s issue is how to treat kidney disease and she is aiming to induce the disease in rats and then trial different drugs, how could she be expected to know that bioengineering is coming up with some very promising lines of research on the development of human stem cells to tackle kidney disease? Or if she does know about this research, how can she be asked to proceed along those lines when she does not have the educational background? The same applies with all other alternatives. The general point is that the research protocols received by the AECs are coming out of animal research dominated disciplines that at present are usually quite separate from the emerging fields of computer simulation and so on. So an unrealistic expectation is put upon researchers to assess all the alternatives.

Problems (1) and (4) are related. Members of AECs are required to sign confidentiality agreements prohibiting them from revealing information about deliberations, which fails to assure the public that only the most essential and justified proposals are approved. Further, if a committee member objects to a proposal that will be approved, her options are limited. She could either resign or go public—and neither is satisfactory. The former does not promote ethical discussion, and the latter requires breaking a promise which could subject the member to disciplinary action.

Russell notes one (very rare) instance where an AEC member chose to violate the confidentiality agreement. The proposed research required keeping kangaroos “in a cage/box measuring 1 metre x 1.3 metres x 1.7 metres for up to 9 months to measure the methane gas expelled.” After the member leaked the proposal to an animal protection organization, it was critiqued by Professor Steve Garlick, an expert in kangaroo rehabilitation, who explained that the experiment would subject the animals to high levels of stress and a range of diseases and illnesses, thereby making survival unlikely. A public outcry ensued and the proposal was withdrawn. For Russell, the example illustrates “how difficult it is for an AEC to reject proposals even when it should be clear that excessive cruelty for uncertain gain would result.” She adds, “I have yet to hear of a research proposal put up to an AEC in Australia which has been rejected.”

Problem (5) makes outright rejection of a research proposal extremely difficult because of the social and institutional pressures involved. When a research proposal has reached the AEC, it has cleared every hurdle except for the last stage (ethics). Outright rejection at that point “would lead to a scandal for all concerned. The researcher would feel personally criticized. It would be shameful for the department and university and not just because they would lose the money.”  A related problem is (1), the lack of independent members. The Code requires the inclusion of a member “independent of the institution,” but in Russell’s two-decade experience with AECs at the University of Sydney, the independent member position tends to be filled by “people from philosophy or philosophy of science within the institution.” Given various social pressures, the lack of independent members creates “the possibility of keeping quiet about research that may be questionable.”

What these structural defects highlight is the need for a profound paradigm shift, but that will not occur by convincing researchers working in one paradigm to use the methods of another. As Russell argues,

If we want to move forward in the promotion of alternatives we need to recognize that success will not come from trying to persuade researchers who are putting in proposals to experiment on animals that they should really be working in a different field. Rather it will come from promotion of the alternative fields, such as human bioengineering and computer studies, so that animal research comes to be seen as unnecessary, old hat—that’s the way we used to do things.

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