Research ethics: why we have separate animal ethics committees

“It doesn’t make sense to have separate research ethics committees for animal and human research subjects” is something I’ve heard more than once the last few months. Behind this statement is a theory-based argument based on that different kinds of research cannot be separated and that there is only one research ethics, and the practice-based question of what happens with a project that is approved by one committee but not by the other.

I disagree with the idea that the best approach is a single committee for ethics review, and I think that as soon as we try to test the arguments in practice, it becomes clear that they work best in theory.

It may be that in an ideal world, there is really only one area of research ethics, where the discussion of all issues of how research interacts with other living beings can take place. But this is not how the ethics field looks today, neither as a research discipline nor as a practical activity. Today there is bioethics, which is closely related to medical ethics, and is about the consequences that research has on human beings. And there is animal research ethics, which in terms of approaches and principles is much closer related to the wider field of animal ethics than to the human focused bioethics. In terms of people who work with these issues, there are two communities which overlap very little. And in terms of the approaches they use and the principles they rely on, they are also distinct.

Of course, if we look at ethics as a subdiscipline of philosophy, there are way more than two schools of thinking. But if we focus on biological/biomedical research ethics as a practical activity with a regulatory function, which is what this post is about, there are really two ways. When the research subjects are humans, the analysis is based on Beauchamp’s and Childress’ four principles of respect for autonomy, beneficience, non-maleficience and justice. When the research subjects are animals, the analysis is based on the 3Rs principle of Replacement, Reduction and Refinement.

But this is not just a matter of principles Рthere are practical consequences having to do with the expertise you need to work with the different kinds of questions. People who review and give recommendations for research projects with human beings have expertise and practical experience in matters such as informed consent and data protection. People who review and give recommendations for animal research are experts on matters such as anaesthesia and environmental enrichment. These areas of expertise are hardly ever combined in the same people, because they really belong to different background training and professional areas.

Now, what about the practical question of projects which include both research with human and animal subjects? it is true that these projects exist – but it is rather rare for the animal and the human parts to be so intertwined that they actually depend on their respective approval to be successful. The few examples that I have seen are when cells of human origin are transplanted into animals, a technique that is quite common in for example cancer research. And from the practical perspective of an animal ethics committee, the issue can be dealt with pragmatically. We do what is our task as an animal ethics committee and review these projects from the perspective of consequences for the animals – and add one requirement: that the procedure of obtaining the cells and using them for the purpose has been approved by the respective human ethics committee. If there is no such approval, we tell the applicant to come back when the approval is in place.

The final stumbling block for a combined committee is the sheer number of people needed to cover all the expertise. To handle project review well, a committee needs to have sufficient expertise also in the different types of research. Since very little of that expertise overlaps between research with human and research with animal subjects, a joint committee needs to include roughly twice the number of people.

This does not mean that animal and human subjects research committees cannot learn from each other. But that is a different topic.

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