Science Briefs

The Realities of Conducting Laboratory Animal Research

Funding is a serious challenge for many psychologists, but those working with lab animals have been particularly hard hit by policy shifts in federal agencies.

By Nancy K. Dess, PhD
At the 2006 Science Leadership Conference, I was invited to identify threats and obstacles to work with laboratory animals. This work continues to contribute importantly to our understanding of behavior, yet faces enormous challenges to its vitality - indeed, to its existence. I welcomed the opportunity to share with an eclectic, distinguished group of colleagues six key challenges and some ideas for surmounting them.

Frontal Assaults

Antivivisectionism - wholesale opposition to work with lab animals - constitutes the most direct and serious threat. Antivivisectionists condemn such work as immoral and fraudulent and seek to end it through means ranging from civil discourse to harassment at work and home and in print, laboratory destruction, and death threats. Antivivisectionist leaders have asserted that arson, vandalism, and theft are justified in pursuit of their goal; in 2005 Congressional testimony, Jerry Vlasak defended his view that assassinating lab animal researchers would be morally justifiable and effective. Were this only bluster. In recent years, antivivisectionists have destroyed psychologists' data, equipment, and, sadly, lab animals at major universities. In 2006, a bomb intended for a researcher was accidentally left at an elderly neighbor's home (it malfunctioned); another received so many threats against his life, spouse and children that he returned a federal grant and left the field. Against this backdrop, the shouting down of psychologists at APA's 2004 convention in Hawaii seems tame - but anyone who respects academic freedom should be concerned about such tactics as well.

Strategies: With antivivisectionists who adhere to civil tactics, the lab animal community will have to agree to disagree; no rapprochement is possible with those who will receive this articulation of our trevails with glee. As for criminal attacks on persons, lab animals and property, some help arrived last year. The federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act stiffens penalties for crimes against lab animal researchers, their associates, and their families. Institutions should have a rapid response plan for threats and attacks, including a telephone tree with contacts in local law enforcement and concise, unambiguously supportive statements for designated officials to make to the campus community and press. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so researchers and their institutions should evaluate security at their lab animal facilities. Some measures that dramatically increase security are surprisingly affordable.

Show Me the Money

Funding is a serious challenge for many psychologists, but those working with lab animals have been particularly hard hit by policy shifts in federal agencies. The National Institute of Mental Health recently reinterpreted its mission to favor research more proximate to serious mental illness. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has narrowed its animal-behavior programs to focus on evolutionary theory and neural mechanisms. These shifts parallel trends in politics and science - respectively, "accountability" and reductionist movements - that are not congenial to experimental analysis of normative behavior in lab animals.

Strategies: Good ideas, grant savvy, and ferreting out lesser known funding sources help lab animal research get done. But to scale up, our community needs to redouble its efforts at advocacy and outreach to increase available funding. We owe a great debt to lobbyists at APA, APS, and the Federation who have worked tirelessly to maintain funding streams for psychology, but such efforts are a bit like a finger in a dyke. Legislators are responsive to constituencies, and recurring efforts to defund "liberal" or "frivolous" projects and to eliminate social and behavioral sciences from NSF reflect, in part, the electorate's ambivalence about psychological research. We have to more effectively make the case for psychological science to policy makers and the general public. The challenge is not unique to lab animal research and thus provides a great opportunity for coalition-building. Letter writing campaigns, relationships with state officials, visits to Capitol Hill such as the terrific Advocacy Workshops organized by APA's Public Policy Office, and APA's Exploring Behavior G8-10 Outreach Program [lab animal modules available courtesy of the Committee on Animal Research and Ethics (CARE)] are examples of activities that can make a difference.

Regulations, Regulations, Regulations

Regulatory burden is a loaded term. One connotation is that virtually all regulations are unnecessarily burdensome. This interpretation is unwise. Regulatory oversight can provide information and advice, legal indemnification, and critical perspectives on moral issues. But regulatory compliance can consume a lot of time and energy. Depending on species and institution, researchers are accountable to an Institutional Animal Care & Use Committee (IACUC), the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW), the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, International (AAALAC), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and game/wildlife agencies. Navigating the bureaucracy can be frustrating, especially when the rules seem arbitrary, inefficient, or, worse, not in the lab animals' best interests.

Strategies: The research community should work to shift attitudes toward regulation. Whining or reflexive resistance to any constraint invite suspicion - and more regulation. A constructive posture embraces regulation as an integral if sometimes onerous part of our job, one that can help us do it better and be a saving grace if criticized or accused. That said, researchers shouldn't act like potted plants. They should stay informed. Great resources are as close as a keystroke [federal agency FAQs, APA's Committee on Animal Research & Ethics (CARE) webpage] or a call to OLAW's helpful staff. They also should participate in decision making, supporting sound regulation and challenging "regulatory creep." For example, when antivivisectionists and others pushed to extend USDA's enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) to lab rats, mice and birds, sound arguments from APA and others opposing the proposed regulation contributed to its defeat. Similarly, psychologists such as Nancy Ator and Steve Dworkin work with AAALAC to shape good, evidence-based policy.

Finally, lab animal researchers should establish a collegial, co-educational relationship with their IACUC. Protocol review can improve the work technically or ethically. Conversely, researchers can be a valuable resource for the IACUC. If an IACUC request is misguided - for instance, cites the AWA in review of a rat project or requires a change that will jeopardize animals' welfare - a respectful correction from the researcher should be well received, more so if the researcher been responsive and thoughtful in the past.


Lack of diversity, as a general rule, is unhealthy for living systems - like science. Psychological science suffers from severe underrepresentation of younger people, women, and people from ethnic/racial minority groups. Subfields in which lab animals figure prominently are even more homogeneous. For example, in the most relevant APA divisions, half of the members are over age 60, 75-78% are male, and 84-87% are white. Data from other organizations are not so different. The lab animal community has let too much talent pass by, and the situation will get worse unless something dramatic happens now.

Strategies: Most efforts focus on diversifying students in the "pipeline" through recruitment and funding. These efforts are necessary but not sufficient. In the near term, the lab animal community has to provide far more professional development opportunities for junior people, including but not limited to those from underrepresented groups. The information and mentoring provided must address not just how to get grants and publish or teach effectively, but also how to build a diverse scholarly community that is welcoming and just. Thanks to Division 6 President Karen Hollis, in collaboration with Divisions 3, 25, 28, and 45, the Committee on Division-APA Relations, and the Science Directorate, 2007 convention programming will include an enhanced version of the CARE Imprinting Award program: A diverse group of junior scholars will present their research, network with peers and senior mentors, and explore the bases of and correctives to the demographic homogeneity in the field. Such activities, if grown and sustained, will change the culture of lab animal work.

In the longer term, diversification efforts will have to impact the K-16 curriculum. Until psychology is understood as a science at early ages, and until the part of the science involving lab animals is experienced as accessible and interesting to a broader cross-section of students, diversification in the profession will be limited. A topical approach to Introduction to Psychology, one that unsettles dichotomies such nature/nurture and social/biological, might be a start.

Doing the Right Thing

Ethics are central to the research enterprise, informing scientists' highest aspirations and guiding them through the rocks and shoals of egregious transgression. As a kind of ethics code, regulations should foster ethical behavior. I believe the currently stringent regulations do lead most researchers to do the right thing. But an emphasis on following rules appears to be undermining the intentionality of ethical decision making. In some quarters, "ethics education" seems virtually synonymous with training in regulatory compliance. Time pressures, hyperspecialization, and perhaps a degree of defensiveness spawned by truly scary antivivisectionists have conspired against philosophy and nuance. This legalistic orientation is not unique to lab animal work but is a particular threat to it, because the work's harshest critics ground their attacks in moral argument and because lab animals' welfare is at stake.

Strategies: The lab animal community must expect of all its members a self-conscious, informed, well-reasoned ethical posture toward their work, making clear that anything less is a disservice to themselves, the research enterprise, and lab animals. Of course, these expectations must be coupled with opportunities to develop a rich ethical sensibility, including primers and more advanced coursework, regular discussions within and across labs, real nor mock participation in IACUC deliberations, and exposure to peer and senior role models who take their ethical responsibilities seriously. In these ways, the bar will be raised.

"I Am Not An Animal!"

Anthropodenial (De Waal) and animal-origin disgust (Rozin) are terms coined to refer to many people's aversion to their animalness, a sentiment poignantly reflected in John "Elephant Man" Merrick's famous cry. Humans' perceived separateness from other animals is fostered in various ways: creationist cosmology, mind/body and nature/nurture dualisms, and human/animal language. Even many psychologists who embrace evolution and take as biological fact that Homo sapiens is an animal species use language that implies otherwise (e.g. "Humans and animals are similar in this respect.") Powerful ideologies and motives are attached to the idea of human distinctiveness - and as such, they comprise a formidable challenge to the view that research with other species, especially "artificial" animals bred for the laboratory, is relevant to the human condition or otherwise worthy of support.

Strategies: Anthropodenial and its religious, existential, and political manifestations together make a tough nut to crack. Psychological scientists must be united in advocating the nuanced position that humans are neither just like nor completely different from any other species,. They must defend evolution as biological fact and as powerful theory and reject Intelligent Design, a thinly veiled version of Special Creationism, as science. In doing so, however, they must address deep issues of meaning that, for some, make being an animal so terrifying. In addition, gene/environment interactionism and up-to-date models that integrate ultimate and proximate influences on behavior must replace tired battles over whether human evolution bears on contemporary behavior, whether socialization trumps biology, and so on. That in-fighting is akin to bickering on the deck of the Titanic before it hits anti-intellectual, science-bashing, antivivisectionist icebergs. Figuring out how to defend and advance the scientific enterprise in the face of these threats is more important.

Most of the threats, obstacles, and strategies outlined here will resonate in some way with psychological scientists whose work does not involve lab animals. In the bigger picture, we stand on common ground. Let's work together to create a vibrant community of scientists, including laboratory animal researchers, and to ensure that their work is safe, personally rewarding and valuable to others.

Visit the Committee on Animal Research and Ethics to learn more about APA's efforts in this area.

About the Author

Nancy K. Dess is Professor of Psychology at Occidental College. She was Senior Scientist at APA in 1999-2001 and served as Chair on APA's Committee on Animal Research & Ethics in 2006. Her primary research concerns the relationship between eating and emotion in humans and other animals. In other professional activities, she advocates for a fuller understanding of nonhuman animals and human nature, for science education, and for utilization of empirical research in the formulation of effective and humane public policy.