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.

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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.

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