Adventures in Ethics and Science

Likely, the throbbing mass of humanity at my university knows at least a little more than it did before last week, owing to an article in the student newspaper about the institutional animal care and use committee. (It was a front-page article, so the chances that it attracted eyeballs was reasonably good.)

A few things that jumped out at me:

The very existence of an IACUC is treated as news.
It seems to be a big surprise that university researchers (and physiology professors) don’t just order mice like they do whiteboard markers — maybe because most of the students (and, perhaps, a significant number of faculty and staff in departments that don’t work with animal) don’t realize that there are federal regulations governing the use of animals in teaching and research.

Indeed, the president of the campus animal rights group (about which more in a moment) “had no prior knowledge of the animal use and care committee or the rules and regulations for animal use” at the university, according to the article. I guess I’m not as much surprised as I am disappointed by this, since searching on the phrase “animal use” in the university website yields many relevant results, and the first of these is the POLICY AND ASSURANCE FOR HUMANE CARE AND USE OF ANIMALS, which describes, among other things, the IACUC.

I suppose it may take awhile for internet searching to catch on with the young people, though.

Our campus has an animal rights group?
The article was the first I had heard of this group. Just goes to show what you can learn by reading the paper on a regular basis.

Then again, this is not what I’d have expected from an animal rights group.

From the article:

Vanessa Rego, who is the creator and president of the Students for Animal Rights club at SJSU, said that the club is against animal use at the university.

“As far as we are concerned, we don’t think animals should be used for human purposes in any way, whether that be for testing, entertainment, clothing, food,” she said. “We do realize that it’s not realistic to expect everyone to stop eating and using animals, but we are asking people to use them more humanely.”

Rego, who had no prior knowledge of the animal use and care committee or the rules and regulations for animal use at SJSU, said that she is aware that her views on animal rights are extreme, and said that even if animal testing is not abolished, she believes students at SJSU should be given more education on issues such as conservation and humanity.

I can’t help but notice that Ms. Rego sounds … pretty reasonable. Her group doesn’t expect people to stop eating meat or using animals in research. Their “demands” (and really, that seems like too strong a word) are that people use animals more humanely, and that students be educated about conservation and humanity.*

Education seems like a good thing — fuller information can only lead to better decision making. And the university policy itself calls for humane treatment of animals:

San Jose State University (SJSU) recognizes this policy as its reference for the humane care and use of animals and for in addressing ethical concerns in discussions, evaluations and policy matters regarding the care and use of animals by all individuals at SJSU and its affiliates.

SJSU acknowledges the public debate about the legitimacy, importance and relevance of the ethics of animal care and use. We recognize that within this debate there are a number of legitimate and responsible perspectives, concerns and unresolved issues that are expressed in various ways. We, therefore, commit ourselves to be a respectful and responsible party within this on-going public debate.

SJSU recognizes the relevance, value and significance of the ideals of the humane treatment of animals as part of conducting sound scientific research and quality teaching. Therefore, we commit ourselves actively to: seek satisfactory means that do not entail the use of animals, employ ways that minimize the number of animals used, minimize physical and psychological discomfort, and minimize the amount of euthanasia entailed in our work.

SJSU holds that among the sources of our ethical responsibilities in the care and use of animals are the relationships we have with the other members of the animal kingdom, and the life that we hold in common with them. Therefore, we view our role in the care of animals to be one of stewardship, which includes the responsibility actively to assess and meet the needs of animals in our charge and to provide for their comfort. We view our role in all instances of animal use to be one that must reflect a deep sense of humility. Our corresponding responsibilities must include efforts to seek and employ methods that embody most fully both respect for the life of individual animals and reverence for life itself.

It will be interesting to see whether the Students for Animal Rights club, sparked by the newspaper article, will find out more about the university’s existing policies and commitments, and whether doing so will lead to dialogue with other parts of the university community.

______
* I’m assuming here that the education in “humanity” would be geared toward teaching people how to behave more humanely.

Comments

  1. #1 Clinton
    November 20, 2007

    “Our campus has an animal rights group?
    The article was the first I had heard of this group. Just goes to show what you can learn by reading the paper on a regular basis.”

    seems to me that you should volunteer to be their faculty advisor. :-)

  2. #2 JSinger
    November 20, 2007

    Rego, who had no prior knowledge of the animal use and care committee or the rules and regulations for animal use at SJSU, …believes students at SJSU should be given more education on issues

    My recollection from college is that this combination of demanding “more education” with willful, total ignorance is a hallmark of “activists”.

    But anyway, going back to the discussion from a few weeks ago…

    He explained reduction as using the minimal amount of animals necessary, replacement as replacing a life with an animal model whenever possible, such as using computer simulation…

    This is an example of what I always find disingenuous. You get a form from the IACUC, there’s a box that asks “Can this be done with a computer simulation?” and you fill in “Nope, can’t be done, I need mice.” Usually that’s true, but the IACUC’s always talk like they’re having elaborate discussions with the PI about the frontiers of technology, which is rarely the case. (For rodents, anyway. Maybe for dogs or primates, it’s different.)

    I’d be curious to know how many proposed animal projects have ever really been replaced with computer simulations after discussion with the IACUC.

  3. #3 Karen
    November 20, 2007

    It still wouldn’t be a bad idea to change the locks on the animal labs. There’s always an extremist or two in this sort of group.

  4. #4 andythebrit
    November 20, 2007

    JSinger, probably not many, but computer simulation seems like something complementary to other experimentation rather than replacing it.

    On the other hand some imaging technology means that you can reduce the number of animals, because you don’t have to kill them to find out what’s going on inside.

  5. #5 coathangrrr
    November 20, 2007

    It still wouldn’t be a bad idea to change the locks on the animal labs. There’s always an extremist or two in this sort of group.

    Yes, clearly any animal rights group must have at least one person who is just holding back their deep seated need to break things and terrorize people. And obviously, changing the locks will in some way help.

  6. #6 freds
    December 9, 2007

    Animal use and care have changed for the better, much better. Work considered acceptable years ago would not be tolerated today. While looking for a suitable lab for my MS in 1967, I wandered into the reproductive physiology lab and discovered research on semen physiology. Of course that meant collecting semen. The grad students tied down a male rat, placed a small vial over his penis, and shocked him with an electrode inserted in his anus. Each time the rat was shocked, he arched his back and gave out what could only be described as a scream.

    They found it humorous. I found a lab studying entomology.

  7. #7 MarkH
    December 9, 2007

    JSinger,
    Computer simulation is still so unsophisticated that it is largely a pipe dream, at least based on our current knowledge of biology.

    I have seen scientists use computer models, one of the graduate students in my program actually used modeling quite effectively to show there was a missing link in a signaling pathway, but it was based on detailed knowledge of kinetic processes that are very well understood. Ultimately, it has to be confirmed in vivo anyway. The problem is that there are tens of thousands of genes, we understand the function of a handful, and even then, there are always surprises. That and in any multivariate system, the complexity of cellular and organismal processes will be impenetrable to models and prediction even with very complete knowledge.

    As it stands now, if there is a systems bio approach or computer model researchers will look at it, take the findings with a huge grain of salt, and then confirm in vivo. It’s a classic example of an experiment that I believe is a huge waste of time. If it works, you publish, if it contradicts the in vivo or cellular data, you ignore it. Good experiments should be informative no matter what the result.

    One day maybe, but long after we’ve figured out the function, structure, and molecular interaction of a majority of the genes in animals (conservatively 50 years of work), or manage to accurately determine function based on structure. Structure solutions as it stands take an enormous amount of time, and give conformational information usually of one splice variant in one or two conformations. Proteins may consist of multiple variants with multiple functions, and posttranslational modifications will further complicate reductionist analysis.

    So, don’t hold your breath on that one.

  8. #8 trillwing
    December 18, 2007

    Most people (new faculty as well as students) are shocked when they learn my institution has 4,700 monkeys. It raises a lot of eyebrows, but the center only ever gets criticized by animal rights groups, not by your average university community member. Which kind of surprises me–I mean, nearly 5,000 primates? Seriously?

  9. #9 trollanon
    December 18, 2007

    “the center only ever gets criticized by animal rights groups, not by your average university community member. Which kind of surprises me”

    Why should this surprise you? An entire university of educated people who by inclination and profession engage in inquiry. Scientific, sociological ethical, humanitarian and no doubt theological. A population of undergraduates that, if they are anything like most undergraduates, are fond of questioning just about anything and everything. And yet it is only the fringe element that “criticizes” the CNPRC. Most of these, no doubt, being from external sources, i.e., not from Davis or associated with UCD, heck probably not even from CA!

    Perhaps what this situation should tell you is that (your) knee jerk responses such as “nearly 5,000 primates? Seriously?” may require a little thought and exploration on your part.

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