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.

The academic carbon footprint

The Katowice Climate Change Conference just ended and I’m taking this as an opportunity to reflect on academic carbon footprints. Given how much more carbon-heavy air travel is than any other means of transport, and how limited train connections are where I’m based, my academic carbon footprint is huge, even though I do my best to minimize my personal,  I will write a couple of posts on this topic, starting with a retrospective review of my year in travelling and travel decisions.

This is rather a typical year for me since I took on two board positions in other European countries (UFAW/HSA and Swiss 3R Competence Centre). It is way more air travel than I would like. But based as I am in one corner of Europe, the only realistic alternative is not to participate. Given that I’m one of the very few animal welfare researchers in the country, this is an alternative that would impact my work negatively. I need to meet others, see their work and discuss with them. What I can do is to make the most of my flights, by combining several commitments in one. I think I’ve managed to do that reasonably well in 2018.

In January I flew to England to participate in the meeting of the Board of Trustees of UFAW and HSA in Wheathampshire. I continued to Edinburgh for a meeting about future research collaboration. I combined two trips in one, but I really could have taken the train to Edinburgh. Flying was not more expensive and theoretically faster, but I could just as well have spent the time I worked in the airport café working in the train. Direct flights Porto-London and London-Edinburgh, stopover in Brussels on the way from Edinburgh to Porto. All flights were fully occupied or almost.

In March I flew to Brussels for a week of panel meetings. Direct flight there, full. Return flight always require a stopover, the first leg from Brussels is always full, the second not necessarily so. I don’t remember if this was via Frankfurt or via Lisbon. At the panel meeting I learned about an important meeting in Paris 10 days later, to which I had direct flights, both full. In March I also decided not to travel to Utrecht for a board meeting. Instead I wrote a missive together with a colleague about how the association needs to prepare for board members participating remotely. Indeed, even though all the technology we could have was another board member’s laptop with Skype, remote participation worked well. The only real mishap was the frustration that the coffee was served right in front of the camera, whereas for me to get a coffee to my office means I had to leave the meeting for 10 minutes 😉

In April, a new PhD student started in a Marie Curie network project. He was based in Denmark before joining my group, and the kick-off meeting was going to be in Denmark mid-April, so we agreed that he would spend the first 10 days working with my collaborator in Copenhagen and then relocate after the meeting. That wasn’t my flight but it was my decision and saved one return flight Porto-Copenhagen. I flew direct Porto-Copenhagen for the meeting but arrived early and were able to fit in another meeting and spending the weekend with family. Direct flights, fully occupied.

In May I didn’t travel. I also decided not to attend the EurSAFE conference in Vienna in June which would have required a return flight with stopovers in both direction. This was a decision largely motivated by wishing to avoid travelling when I could; a colleague agreed to take over the workshop I had hoped to coordinate and for the rest, I was only going to be a spectator, so unlike all the previous trips I could really skip it without consequences for anyone else than for myself. However, an unexpected and interesting meeting in Amsterdam came up instead – but at least the flight there is direct and was fully occupied.

In July I travelled to a workshop in Lisbon by car together with a colleague, and returned by train. I did not attend the UFAW and HSA board of trustees meeting in the UK.

In the end of July I travelled to Prince Edward Island in Canada for the ISAE conference. This was a 3-legged journey and an intercontinental flight. I thought long and hard about this, but ISAE is my main learned society and the one closest to my heart and it was my last meeting as a council member. The decisive factor was the possibility to meet with a postdoc about work she is finishing for a project with me in which she was hired before she returned to Canada. Making the most out of flights doesn’t reduce the carbon footprint but it makes the harm-benefit balance more favourable.

In the end of August I had a project meeting in Berlin (direct flight, fully occupied). I continued to Sweden, again on a direct and fully occupied flight, to spend time with family. I had hoped to take the direct night train from Berlin to Malmö, which existed when I last went to Berlin in 2005, but alas, now a train connection requires several changes and costs way more than a flight. I added a meeting with collaborators in Copenhagen (train from Sweden) and then continued to Edinburgh for the AWRN thermography workshop before I returned to Porto (direct flight there, stopover in Brussels on the way back, all flights fully occupied).

In the end of September I attended the first meeting of the scientific advisory board of the newly formed Swiss 3Rs Competence Centre in Bern. Direct flights, fully occupied, train connections within Switzerland.

In October I flew to England to participate in the meeting of the Board of Trustees of UFAW and HSA in Wheathampshire. I then took the train to Cambridge for a meeting with collaborators at Babraham Institute before flying back to Porto. Direct flights both ways, fully occupied.

In the end of November I flew to Brussels to participate in a week of panel meetings. This could have been avoided; I try to only do a panel meeting a year but frankly, I had forgotten that I had already done one in March. Direct flight there, return flight with stopover in Lisbon. Flights fully occupied except the last leg, Lisbon-Porto.

In December I travelled to a meeting in the north of Spain, together with four colleagues. We convened by public transport and then continued in one car. Interestingly, during that journey I found out that one of the others always car pool to work, whereas another take his bike. (I walk, or occasionally take the metro). I’m not seeing family in Sweden for Christmas, because I will be going in the end of January for work.

 

What does IKEA have to do with animal welfare? Interview with Priya Motupalli

Priya Motupalli, Global Sustainable Sourcing Specialist sure is a cool title for an animal welfare scientist. Tell us what you do at IKEA Food Services AB!

Thanks!  It’s a mouthful, but it’s an incredible position where I get to place animal welfare at the heart of our vision for more sustainable agriculture.  My role is to develop and support the implementation of our sustainable sourcing strategy for the animal products in our range across all of the 52 markets we operate in.

This strategy consists of a set of programmes which covers animal welfare, environmental impact, and public health issues at the farm level.  The first of these species-specific programmes, the better chicken programme, was launched publicly in the beginning of this year.

Priya with chicken

What are the principles you apply to your work?

The mission of IKEA is to create a better everyday life for the many people.  I take this to heart in my own work—I’m not interested in good animal welfare or sustainable food production getting stuck in a niche market where only a small segment of the population benefits or has access to it.  My goal is to consistently find a place for animal welfare as a core tenant of more sustainable food systems.  This isn’t simple, as there are documented trade-offs—so I try and focus how animal welfare can connect to environmental or social issues to move the conversation forward, rather than not moving at all.

We also have something called the 7 Food Principles which set the general business direction at IKEA Food—although there is a principle around animal welfare, my favourite one is actually “food is pleasure.”  Consumers are so overloaded now with information on the dos/don’ts of sustainable consumption!  I think part of our job is to ensure that they can pick up something in the Swedish food market, or dine in the Restaurant, or grab something in the bistro and simply feel good about it, without having to panic about where it was sourced, or what the working conditions were like, or how the animals were raised, etc.  Food is such an intimate, enjoyable part of our lives—and making more sustainable or healthier choices shouldn’t be a barrier to this enjoyment!

Of course, providing this experience for our customers is a journey and there is a great saying by our founder, Ingvar Kamprad that “most things remain to be done.”

In which way does animal welfare science get into your job? Do you use actual research data or methods?

Animal welfare science is a critical part of the job—and one of the main reasons I was hired!  Current research forms the backbone of any animal welfare sourcing criteria we create.  However, as the science only tells you what you can do, not necessarily what you should do, our sourcing criteria is also a product of country specific legislation, feedback from NGOs and suppliers, and customer desires.

In addition, data collection and the use of this data to improve animal welfare over time is an integral part of our better chicken programme, and will form an integral part of our other species-specific programmes as well.  Alongside any input criteria we set, we have also identified key welfare outcomes that we will measure with the help of our suppliers and retail partners.  These welfare outcome measures will provide objective information on the quality of life for animals’ specific to our supply chain. In time, we can use this information to establish key areas of improvement and apply targeted interventions.

Our first data-set related to the better chicken programme came in recently and I’m keen to get it to start working for us!

If you are interested in how IKEA works with sustainability in general: https://www.ikea.com/gb/en/this-is-ikea/people-planet/

If you want to learn more about IKEA’s view on animal welfare: https://www.ikea.com/gb/en/doc/general-document/ikea-read-more-about-ikeas-view-on-animal-welfare__1364641255476.pdf

Follow Priya on twitter:@drpriyamots

Coverage of Better Chicken: http://5mpoultry.uberflip.com/i/976632-poultry-digital-may-2018/15?m4=

Time to think about your contribution to EurSAFE2019!

The conferences of the European Society for Food and Agricultural Ethics (EurSAFE) are among the most important arenas for the academic discussion of animal ethics. The next conference will be held in Tampere, Finland 19-21 September 2019.

These conferences have a two-stage submission procedure: first you submit a short abstract and on basis of that you are (hopefully!) invited to submit a short paper. This paper is then published in a proceedings book, which is available at the conference. As a long-time conference participant and a previous congress organizer, I have lots to say about this concept… On a positive note, it’s always an interesting book. And being responsible for editing one really made me a much more efficient editor!

In any case, this two-step procedure takes time, and therefore the deadline for submitting abstracts is well ahead of the conference. You still have a month and a half, though, this year the deadline is 2 December. More information about how to submit here.

Conference topics on animals are Animal politics, Fisheries and aquaculture ethics and Animal and veterinary ethics. Those of you who are interested in animal politics and animal law may like to know that Gary Francione and Alasdair Cochrane are confirmed as plenary speakers.

Open Science in October

Do you think about Open Science? Do you practice Open Science? Do you think Open Science matters? My research group is working on the topic during the month of October, with the aim of formulating an Open Science strategy for the group. We’re doing this because we think it makes sense for us to put Open Science into practice, but we need to work out the best way for us and our research.

We identified the following burning issues:

  • Study preregistration
  • Protocol and methods sharing
  • Data sharing
  • Preprint publication

These are the ones we are interested in but need to know more about in order to be able to practice (or make an informed decision not to practice) them. In addition, we prioritize  open access publishing and social media communication – but we’re already working on this. Although with a permanent backlog, we are uploading papers to the university open repository and we try to keep the group’s Facebook page up to date.

In a month, I hope to be able to report back on this. In the meantime, if you want to learn more about Open Science you may want to look at the FOSTER project.