The Scientist. 1 November 2010.
We Must Face the Threats.
By Sarah Greene
2009 Hidden Jewel (lower-impact-factor) publication, Journal
of Neuroscience: “We must face the threats,” by D.L. Ringach
and J.D. Jentsch of the David Geffen School of Medicine,
University of California, Los Angeles. The title and its
subject seem to belong to the Modern Library fiction
collection, not to PubMed archives. It describes threats to
and actual attacks by animal rights activists on researchers’
families, their labs, and indeed to an entire realm of science
experimentation. Seventeen Faculty Members submitted
evaluations supporting the authors’ call to the research
community: explain your commitment to strict ethical
guidelines and “the key role animal research plays in our work
and what our society stands to lose if we were to stop it.”
In response, as reported by this magazine’s news team, a
working group of researchers created guidelines on how to
respond to activists’ demands. It’s heartening to see
follow-up and also to review extensive government
requirements, worldwide, for lab-animal comfort and safety. As
noted in earlier columns, communication with the
public—regarding use of embryonic stem cells, cloning
techniques, brain scans, or any number of button-pushing
methodologies—is critical for nurturing a lay public that
champions and funds bioresearch.
In light of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
announced recently, awarded to Robert Edwards for his work on
in vitro fertilization, one cannot help but reflect on the
nearly 4 million “miracle” lives that have sprung from basic
research involving experimentation with rabbits and hamsters.
The list of medical conditions that have benefited from the
use of animals in research is extensive: cancer, AIDS and
other infectious diseases, stroke, traumatic head injury,
Parkinson’s disease, and chronic diseases such as diabetes and
Yet…there are moments of doubt. How to deal with our
observations that animal test subjects have self-recognition
(primates) and laugh in their cages (rats)? Indeed 30 minutes
of googling reveals deep conversation and debate in blogs
among scientists, and a multitude of studies examining the
efficacy of animal models in different types of experiments.
This, too, is science in action and has led to refined
definitions of when animal testing must be employed.
Philosophy helps, as well.
Peter Singer, the eminent philosopher at Princeton University,
makes the case that “equal consideration of interests” must be
given animals not because they are equal to humans in
reasoning or discourse abilities, but because they can suffer.
In terms of lab experimentation, given the suffering doctrine,
one would treat animals according to the strictest guidelines,
but how to justify their sacrifice? The recently deceased
British philosopher Philippa Foot posed the famous “trolley
problem” that helps immensely here. A runaway trolley speeds
toward five track workers. An observer is able to pull a
switch and divert the trolley to a spur where just one worker
is on the track, saving five lives by sacrificing one.
Difficult to pull the switch, but we hope our sacrifice of lab
animals will save many thousands of human lives.
Foot also is remembered for her insistence that courage,
wisdom, and temperance are all cornerstones of morality. Not a
bad doctrine for the lab, whether working with Danio rerio,
Rattus norvegicus, or any random Homo sapiens.