Is a positive attitude to animal research desirable?

The question is motivated by a recently published research paper in JALAAS: Attitudes Toward Animal Research Among Medical Students in the United States by David Q Beversdorf and Nellie R Adams.

The authors recruited student members of the American Academy of Neurology to fill in a questionnaire. 168 students completed the questionnaire, expressing their agreement or disagreement with a set of 14 positively- or negatively-biased statements regarding animal research. After that, they were given the opportunity to watch a video about animal research, and asked to fill in the same questionnaire again, which 108 students did. In the text box to the right, you can see examples of the statements the students were presented with.

Untitled

After having watched the video, the students were slightly more positive towards research with animals: the score went from an average of 4.0 to an average of 4.1. (A score near 5 shows a positive attitude to animal research, a score near 1 a negative attitude).

The authors do not make much out of that change (not surprisingly, it’s so small that it doesn’t really matter) but instead discuss the observation that “a substantial number of
medical students express disagreement with statements that
describe essential components of the drug and procedure
development pipeline. As described above, 13.2% disagreed
with the statement ‘New surgical procedures should be tested
on animals before they are used on people,’ and 7.2% disagreed
with ‘New drugs should be tested on animals before
they are used on people.’” They continue to conclude that “The changes in attitudes after observing the video suggests that negative attitudes can be changed, and that medical education may have a role in this setting.” If you want to read the full paper, you can request a copy from the authors at ResearchGate.

Numerous studies with bigger samples and better methods have measured the attitude of different publics to animal resarch, but the present study is novel in the choice of a very specific public: medical students. My main issue with how the study was conducted is the quite one-sided study design. The video in question is produced by Americans for Medical Progress, an advocacy organisation for biomedical research and in particular the use of animals in such research. While I think the video is quite reasonable, it definitely represents a selective use of information. That’s not surprising, as the organisation behind it is working in favour of public support for biomedical researh with animals.

Should a goal for medical education be to make students more positive to the use of animals in research? I’m really not convinced that this should be a priority. I think it’s crucial that medical students get a reasonable understanding of the role of animals in biomedical research and drug development. But that also includes an understanding of critical challenges to how useful such research is. And an understanding of why the issue is contentious.

There is no equivalent video advocating in a comparable way for the replacement of animals in biomedical research. People such as the authors behind the book Animal Experimentation: Working Towards a Paradigm Change would probably be able to produce one, and it would be as credible (reasonably so) and balanced (not very) as the AMP video.

And sadly, both of them would miss out on the most critical issue in animal-based biomedical research today: how to design studies so that the results are reliable and translate to humans.

The irony of quickly changing times

It took two months for the previous blog post – about upcoming conferences and the possibility to meet at these conferences! – to become completely obsolete. I was sent home from work on March 13, when we had a major plumbing issue and had to close the institute for cleaning and sanitization. That was a Friday, and on my way back from work in the early afternoon I noticed the gradual spread of – well, panic is too strong a word but at least precautionary measures I had never seen in my life and never expected to see in my own neighbourhood. Face masks, gloves, signs explaining why the shop counter would be desinfected between each client.

I haven’t been back in my normal workplace since then. That was two months ago. My colleagues who need to do lab work are only now starting to get back to speed. We still only allow one person per office or one person per bench in the lab, and each lab has a separate team for morning/afternoon or separate weekday shifts.

It also took two months for me to reach a point where I was able to do more than think I should try to take up blogging again. That doesn’t have so much to do with Covid-19 induced constraints (they don’t affect me much negatively, or at least that is what I like to belive!) as with the fact that we had a major grant deadline on April 30, which had me coordinating one application, being co-PI on two and involved in a third. Grant application periods are always challenging, they leave no time to think about other things, and they require a week or more to recover from the intense work and pressure as well as catching up on all that had to be left until after the deadline.

That is where we are now. Let’s see where that will take Animalogues. I really should have the time to write now, and many reasons to do so. I’m enjoying the renewed digital contact with the animal welfare and applied ethology research community through a Slack space, and hope that I can capitalize on that inspiration.

Are you going to a conference in 2020?

The beginning of a new calendar year is usually the time to think about conferences. Calls for abstracts are about to open – or in some cases even to close. I haven’t made up my mind yet about which conferences to attend, except for two for which I have an invitation (Scand-LAS and World Congress on Alternatives and Animals in the Life Sciences) which I will honour and one I know I won’t attend (ISAE – I usually attend when it’s in Europe and this year it’s in India).

Here are the ones I’m considering:

Canine Science Forum – Lisbon, Portugal 7-10 July

It would be a first time for me and it would be well justified by my increasing engagement in research with dogs. I would be an attendee only, not a presenter, but I expect that somebody else from our research team will be presenting work. Besides, it’s in Lisbon, a 3-h train ride away, and a place where I always enjoy spending some time. Other than that, I can’t really say much since I’ve never attended before.

World Congress on Alternatives and Animals in the Life Sciences – Maastricht, Netherlands 23-27 August

This is an interesting (in more than one way) conference that I’ve attended twice before (it’s held every 3 years). In my experience, it is more of a conference on Replacement alternatives to animals than Refinement alternatives, and the focus on Replacement has been heavily biased towards animal testing (toxicology etc). Whereas I obviously think it’s great that animal tests are being replaced, I don’t really have any scholarly interest in toxicology tests. But this year I have a particular reason for wanting to be present in a Replacement context: we have a project just starting on organoids and other advanced 3D models for research. This would also be a great chance for our newly hired junior researcher and project manager to get a peek into the alternatives research community. I really should discuss with my team what to present. Maastricht is a lovely city too.

EAAP – Porto, Portugal 31 August – 4 September

Again, this is a conference I’ve never attended but one which I know farm animal researchers in Europe always have on their conference agenda. Farm animal science is my background, and this would be an excellent opportunity for a much needed update, within walking distance from home! What speaks against participation is that I’m not sure what I would be able to present, and since this is a costly conference (even when not having to pay for travel or accomodation) I need to be able to fit it into a research project budget.

Will we be meeting at any of these conferences?

Animal welfare outreach: Roi Mandel about student projects as dissemination initiatives

Roi Mandel, you have launched an innovative project to make students’ work in animal welfare reach a wider audience. Tell us more about the project and how it came about!

The aim of this project is rather straightforward – instead of keeping the knowledge on how to improve animal welfare inside the classroom/academia, we try to share it with the world using short (5-7 min) engaging YouTube videos, created by the students themselves.

The knowledge channelled through these videos concerns not only recently published scientific studies but also “older” studies that have a great potential to improve animal welfare in practice (yet unfortunately keep on failing to find their way to basic animal handler training programs/legislation initiatives and product labelling schemes). To improve the accessibility to these videos, English subtitles are added.

Why is important to share this knowledge? In contrast to common belief, the ability to improve the welfare of animals is rooted in holding relevant and updated knowledge, and acting based on it, and not necessarily by providing the animals with the most modern high-end/expensive farm equipment. To improve animal welfare, an animal handler first needs to know: 1. Why do farm animals behave the way they do (e.g. perception, cognition, social structure and contagion of emotions) 2. How can he/she use this knowledge to adapt the environment and his/her work habits to the needs of the animal. This type of knowledge, for example, could help farmers understand the importance of washing away the urine of a stressed cow before trying to get a naive cow into that area. Unfortunately, much of the knowledge generated by animal welfare scientists concerning these topics does not reach its target audience (animal handlers), and when it does, it is usually in the form of regulations (top-down mechanism), that set the minimum standards (i.e. prevent animal cruelty), and does not explain the rational behind them. The videos created by the students provide the audience with the knowledge of how to achieve better welfare conditions than the minimum required by law.

Is it not the responsibility of the relevant unions/sectors (dairy/meat/eggs) to channel this information to their workers? As long as farm animal training is not mandated by law in the majority of countries around the world (and in the few places where training is mandatory, like in Switzerland, there is no mechanism in place to assure periodical update of the knowledge), and as long as those who profit from these industries are not held responsible for providing this type of knowledge to their employees (or to those from which they buy their ״raw material”, e.g. meat, milk, eggs), this knowledge is bound to stay in the academy, locked by paid subscriptions for scientific journals and by conferences entrance fees. Therefore, instead of adopting the easy solution for everyone “its the farmers responsibility/fault”, this project also aims to encourage the students to take an active role in injecting knowledge into the system, hopefully creating future demand for such knowledge from the farmers themselves.

Instructional video creation is not necessarily part of the average Master student’s professional tool box. How do you prepare students for taking on this challenge?

Apart from sending the students a list of free video editing softwares that I found online, I do not do much. The students learn quickly on their own how to use these softwares using instructional videos on YouTube. They report this part to be rather fun, a bit like a game.

foto mandel

What advice would you give other teachers who would like to try something like this?

Once the script is ready and approved by you (scientific content), let the students a free hand with regards to how they would like to deliver the material. They are so incredibly creative when given the option. I had students conducting interviews with farmers/scientist, fully animated videos, stop-motion videos, advertisement-like videos, students dressed like a chicken, others like a cow – as long as they deliver the take home message in a rememberable way – do not intervene in the process

For more technical/detailed advice (how to create shared work logs, a video script, pitching the ideas to the class, work meetings and such) please free to contact me at: roi.mandel@mail.huji.ac.il – I’ll be happy to share my experience.

If you want to see some examples of student videos, Roi suggests Cows’ auditory sense , Early detection of pain in cows and Social isolation of horses (by veterinary students at the Hebrew University, Israel) as well as Learning mechanisms, Dominance in goats and Hiding before calving (by 3rd year bachelor students at ETH Zurich, Switzerland).

ChickenStress: Tom Smulders about a new European research training network

Congratulations, Tom Smulders at Newcastle University and your eleven collaborators to the success in getting funding for the ChickenStress training network! These grants are so competitive that getting one is an enormous achievement in itself. And I think this is the first time ever there is one in animal welfare. Please tell us what this network is about!

The network aims to better understand the different factors that affect stress responsivity and stress resilience in laying hens. We go from the assumption that in the end, the stress resilience is based in the brains of the animals, but that the factors that determine this stress resilience are a combination of genetics, early-life experiences, and current (adult) environment. The network therefore aims to better understand how the stress response is regulated in the avian brain, but it also looks at all three factors that affect resilience. We don’t just want to understand what the effects of these different factors are, we also want to know what we can do to improve stress resilience in the future. Hopefully this will lead to new recommendations to the egg industry to improve laying hen welfare, by providing them with the resources to be more resilient to stress-full experiences.

Logo slide

ChickenStress offers 14 positions for PhD students across the different participating institutions. The opportunity to do research in an internationally competitive research group is of course an important part of doing a PhD, but being a student in a European training network is not only about the individual projects. What is special about the ChickenStress project, why should people apply to this network?

The 14 positions vary widely in the scientific disciplines they represent: from basic neuroscience projects, trying to understand how the stress response is regulated in the forebrain, through more bio-informatics projects, to applied hen behaviour projects. In addition to being trained in these specialist disciplines represented by the different supervisors, who are all international leaders in their fields, the students will all also do a secondment (placement) in another lab in the network and another secondment with an industrial partner. These placements will increase the students’ scientific skill sets and their employability skills more widely. They will also see how their academic research can have real-life implications with real impact. In addition, we will have 4 network-wide events in which the students learn about different aspects of stress regulation, genomics and the interaction between research and industry, as well as present their (interim) results to each other. The aim is that the 14 students, even though they will be based across Europe, form a real cohort, who communicate with each other regularly through electronic means, and contribute significantly to the success of the network as a whole. They will be expected to organize webinars within the network, and to communicate with the public. Anybody interested in applying can still do so before May 15th 2019, by going to our provisional website: www.ncl.ac.uk/cbe/chickenstress.

With a background in poultry welfare research myself, I know how big and complex the issues in this field are. ChickenStress offers an opportunity to tackle some of these questions in a concerted way with quite a lot of resources. May I ask you to be bold and suggest one or two questions where – if successful – ChickenStress can make some real progress?

Hopes are of course always high at the start of such an endeavour, and we all know how slow and twisted the paths from science to application can be. However, I do believe that we are (still) in a crucial time with regards to the changes in housing systems from the old battery cages to whatever the new standard will be. Cage-free egg production seems to be growing very rapidly, with the USA now starting to follow the example of Europe. However, there are still very many unanswered questions about the different cage-free systems. The parts of the network that I think are the most likely to make some real progress when it comes to laying hen welfare, are the projects aimed at understanding the best route from early-life experiences (incubation, hatching, rearing) to adult laying environment. By hopefully making some very concrete recommendations about how hens should be incubated, hatched and reared, so they can cope optimally with the new adult housing environments (e.g. using different levels in multi-tier barns, using the range in free-range systems), I hope that this network will contribute to the successful implementation of these new cage-free production systems, both in terms of animal welfare, and in terms of egg production.

outdoor hens

Should research ethics protect non-human primates as children?

I’ve played with the idea of writing about why chimpanzees are not more protected than children. But whenever I start to develop the argument it seems absurd – anyone who knows what laboratory animal research regulation looks like knows that chimpanzees are not more protected than children! Except that I regularly come across people who argue that in Europe chimpanzees are more protected than children.

I understand where the argument comes from: there is a single regulatory framework for research with animals in Europe (Directive 2010/63/EU) but not for research involving children. Now, this doesn’t mean that there are no rules for children’s participation in research, it only means that the rules differ between countries. And as far as I know, none of these rules allows any researcher to involve a child in invasive and risky research under any condition – except perhaps if that research is likely to help the child. In contrast, a so called safeguard clause allows EU Member States to lift the general ban on the use of great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and gorillas) in invasive research “in relation to an unexpected outbreak of a lifethreatening or debilitating clinical condition in human beings” (Directive 2010/63/EU Article 55:2). Or in other words, facing an outbreak of Ebola in Europe, vaccine trials in chimpanzees would be permissible. (Whether this research could actually be done in practice is a different question. For a long time, the only industrialized country to keep chimpanzees for invasive research was the USA, but in 2015 the NIH announced it would no longer fund such research and lab chimps are now being retired into sanctuaries).

Interestingly, before I got around to writing any of this, I came across this paper which proposes that research regulation should protect chimpanzees and in fact all non-human primates (NHPs) in much the same way as it protects human research subjects. The authors argue that with so many important similarities in cognitive, emotional and social capacities, it doesn’t make sense to have different ethical frameworks depending on whether a primate is human or non-human. Therefore, they argue, we should move non-human primates out of the utilitarian framework that is generally applied to animal research ethics and into the deontological framework that applies to human research subjects. In practice, this means that research with non-human primates should respect the principles of beneficence and non-malevolence, or in other words, research should preferably benefit and definitely not harm the research subjects.

The paper is an interesting contribution to the debate and well worth reading, for the ideas and the examples of research that would be acceptable under a deontological framework. The idea that some animals should be given a rights-based protection is not new (it underlies the entire animal rights movement), but the paper contributes a unique discussion of the potential to do biomedical research with NHPs in a way that is compatible with the principles of benevolence, non-maleficience and even autonomy and justice. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the picture they paint is realistic. What can be achieved by studying naturally occurring situations is strongly limited, and I would have appreciated if the authors had been more thorough in their analysis of  what research would be made impossible if changing the ethical framework. On the other hand, if this were a paper about how to protect children in research, nobody would dream of arguing about the important research benefits to be lost if children couldn’t be harmed in research! This observation in itself clearly marks the difference in thinking about research in utilitarian and consequentialist terms versus in deontological terms.

From a pragmatic perspective, taking into account the diversity of opinion on the matter, I don’t foresee a change of framework any time soon for non-human primates in research at large. A change for the great apes is way more likely to happen in the near future. With the phasing out of invasive research in chimpanzees, the only great ape species which really played a role in biomedical research, a full ban may be accepted without much protest. By then, it may be reasonable to ask if chimpanzees enjoy greater protection than children in biomedical research. .

 

 

 

Why the abstract shouldn’t be abstract!

A while ago I had a brief exchange with a friend about the accessibility of research results. Not whether they are clear or understandable – simply whether somebody who’s not in an academic research institution can even get their eyes on them. Often, they can’t. because research is published in academic journals owned by publishers who want to earn money from people’s interest in reading scientific information. When this is the case, all that the common mortal can access is the abstract or summary of the paper.

There is much to be said about ways around it through Open Access publishing. But even a researcher who doesn’t consider themselves to be able to publish OA can do something to make the results accessible – and it isn’t that difficult. Use the abstract!

Here’s an illustrative example of how not to use the abstract. Of the all-in-all 10 000 words available to them, the authors used 94 for the publicly visible abstract, and not surprisingly, we don’t get to learn much about the research through these 94 words. In contrast, this example from the same journal demonstrates how 250 words is enough to clearly describe the research question, the methods and the results.