Ethics of animal research

monkey-3512996_1280A few months ago, we posted about how we could use animals for research.  Today we are looking at the ethics surrounding the decision to conduct research using nonhuman animals. Most students can reel off the ethics involved in conducting research on humans (informed consent, lack of harm, right to withdraw, privacy, etc.) but when we talk about the ethics of conducting research using nonhuman animals as proxies for humans, they are less clear. Often the argument gets stuck at the level of “It’s OK for medical research, but not for cosmetics.”  This is not good enough for an understanding of the complexities (nor for an exam answer).  For students that wish to argue that conducting research on nonhuman animals in order to avoid causing pain or distress to humans can never be ethical, point out that this is a worthy philosophical question, and could even be a counter-argument in a psychology debate on the topic, but again, it cannot constitute the main argument of an exam essay on ethics.

The APA,  BPS and Australian government publish guidelines for conducting nonhuman animal research ethically. What emerges from the guidelines are the ‘3 Rs’ of animal research:

  • Replace animals with other alternatives – such as computer simulations, use of lesser species (such as single‐cell amoebae and nematode worms),  use micro-dosing, CRISPR DNA editing, or human cell cultures – known more colloquially as ‘patient in a dish’ or ‘body on a chip’.  But animals are used to generate new hypotheses, so CRISPR editing was tried out on animals first, as was stem cell research. 
  • Reduce the number of individual animals used, by using data from other researchers, or by repeated micros-sampling on one animal in a repeated measures design.
  • Refine procedures to minimise suffering, by using appropriate anaesthetics and painkillers, and training animals to cooperate with procedures to minimise any distress. Imaginative research, where faecal matter is analysed to investigate stress levels, rather than drawing blood from an obviously stressed animal, has a part to play here.

In Psychology Sorted Book 1, we provide summaries of studies by Xu et al. (2015) and Stanton et al. (2015) which show how nonhuman animals may be used more ethically, to contrast with others such as Barr et al. (2004) and Weaver et al. (2004) which cause more stress to the animals used. These will help to keep your students more closely focused on the complexities of whether and how we should use nonhuman animals in psychological research.