Animal research: The bigger picture and why we need psychologists to speak out

Report on chimpanzees draws new attention to the role of animal research.

By Allyson J. Bennett

Research with nonhuman animals occupies a central and essential role in psychology and related fields.  Both old and new discoveries from animal research continue to play key roles in advancing our understanding of human behavior.  Studies in a wide range of nonhuman animals were foundational—and remain critical—to identifying how specific brain areas or neurotransmitters contribute to healthy development and function. Studies of language, communication, cognition, and emotion in great apes fundamentally changed how we think about development, our own abilities, and evolution. They also informed how we should best care for other primates and underscored the importance of conservation.  Understanding of genetics, epigenetics, immunology, pharmacology, physiology, development, and a full range of other topics depend on a science that includes animal studies. Animal research plays an integral role in scientific study relevant not only to furthering our basic understanding and knowledge, but also to informing clinical practice and public health policy. It is for this reason that psychologists need to become informed about the threats to research conducted with non-human animals

The use of animals in research is often misunderstood.  Much of the public is not familiar with the ethical guidelines and strict federal, state, and local regulations that govern the care and use of animals in research. Almost all scientists approach research with compassion and a commitment to responsible, humane, and ethical treatment of animals, and it is often their discoveries that lead to improvements in animal welfare and health.  It is also true that the ethical principles that govern animal research include the replacement of animal models, and use of less complex species, when possible.  Among other reasons, this has led to the decreased need for and use of great apes such as chimpanzees in various types of biomedical research.

Anti-animal research campaigns

Chimpanzee research achieved new levels of attention within both the public and scientific sphere in the last year. Attention to its current status and future are reflected in broad and sustained news coverage, intense debate, and emotional pleas delivered via mainstream and social media by scientists, scientific societies, animal protection groups, and animal rights activists.  Recent headlines illustrate the tone:

Public discussion about animal research is not new. Ending all use of animals in research has always been a goal of a number of passionate, organized, sometimes militant, and sometimes terrorist, animal rights groups. Perhaps most visible among them is the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The group, whose leader famously equated rats and children, saying “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. It also recently launched its third demographically-targeted website, PETA Prime. Entire generations have grown up with exposure to PETA through publications placed in school libraries, multiple dynamic websites, widespread face-to-face outreach, and the publicity stunts for which the group has gained broad public name recognition.

Animal rights groups have increased their membership and reach over the past several decades. The largest, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), claims 11 million members (“1 in every 28” of Americans) and has assets of more than $187 million dollars (PDF, 1.59MB).  Others, including the Animal Liberation Front and Negotiation is Over, have continued to develop, advocate and execute tactics that borrow a page from other extremist groups and seek to intimidate scientists. Increasingly, they are focusing harassment, threats, and fear campaigns on individual researchers and lab staff rather than at the institutions that support their research.

A multi-pronged approach to eliminating animal research

These groups differ in their tactics, scope, and in some aspects of their philosophies and agendas. Nonetheless, they are united in their understanding of the importance of public opinion in their long-term success. They understand that if the majority of the public can be convinced—no matter how false such a conclusion may be—that animal research is not valuable, not necessary, and not morally correct, the work will not be supported and will ultimately end.  In fact, the leadership of HSUS has declared that a complete elimination of all animal research is an achievable goal by 2050.

Animal rights groups have invested considerable energy, significant resources, and sustained commitment to advancing an agenda to serve their goal of eliminating all animal research. The recent events surrounding chimpanzee research reflect just a small portion of this agenda.  In the last year, these events include a range of efforts on the legislative, scientific and public opinion fronts. Federal legislation to end great ape research is now pending in Congress (H.R. 1513: Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011S. 810: Great Ape  Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011; GAPCSA). An Institute of Medicine panel was commissioned by the National Institutes of Health to consider whether biomedical and behavioral research with chimpanzees is necessary. The panel’s report, which recommended limiting the use of chimpanzees in research, was released in December 2011. Its recommendations were immediately accepted by Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Collins announced a moratorium on new funding for chimpanzee research pending the development of implementation guidelines. Speaking of Research, an animal research education and advocacy group (of which I am a member), has posted a number of articles on this issue. In one we summarize the IOM report as follows:

The report acknowledged that chimpanzees were vital to past progress, but that at present there is limited necessity and justification for them in research.  It did not endorse a ban on chimpanzee research, nor the continuation of the moratorium on breeding, stating that these could potentially cause “unacceptable losses to the public’s health”.  It also made clear that “animal research remains a critical tool in protecting and advancing the public’s health”

The IOM report and NIH announcement are significant events in the history of animal research in the U.S. They hold many implications for the future of our field.  The report, GAPSCA, and media coverage are focused on chimpanzees. It is clear, however, that the real issue they signal applies to all animal research and deserves more serious consideration by members of the larger scientific community, whether or not they engage in animal research. There should be no doubt that groups working to end all animal studies view chimpanzee research as only the first and easiest target.  It is not clear, however, that the members of academic and scientific communities – most of whom recognize that humanely-conducted animal studies are essential to both basic and biomedical research -- perceive that the recent events may serve as a step toward the elimination of a large and important component of the scientific enterprise. 

Speaking up for animal research

Over the past 30 years the animal rights community has moved from the margins and into the mainstream. A recent report by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press, in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), showed that only 52% of the public support animal research. Science magazine recently carried a full-page ad from the animal rights group HSUS urging the scientific community to endorse its call for the end of great ape research. Animal rights groups have pursued outreach and education campaigns aimed at drawing public attention to their point of view.  They have used a range of tactics, including the familiar publicity stunts and misinformation campaigns. In this they often benefit from the fact that much about animal research is not well understood by the public. Exacerbating the problem is that too few voices are raised to present accurate information about the unique importance of animal research to both basic and biomedical science.

Some of the most effective voices would be those of scientists engaged in animal research. But many—though certainly not all—are inhibited by the fear that public engagement can draw fire from activists (including university professors) who focus threats and harassment on scientists who work with animals.

There are other voices that can make a difference in public understanding of the value of animal research.  Among them are those members of the academic and scientific communities whose work and goals build on and benefit from the scientific contributions of animal research. Psychologists are among those who are well-positioned to assist in this public effort.

Research with nonhuman animals occupies a central and essential role in psychology. Historical and current examples are abundant in our textbooks and our literature. Some are well-known enough to be core and common knowledge in our society.  For example, consider how Harry Harlow’s famous monkey studies contributed broadly to social, clinical, developmental, comparative, and biological perspectives on attachment. The longevity and impact of these studies is evident across disciplines. The animal model developed by Harlow continues to provide the foundation for new discoveries about how early life experiences influence biobehavioral development and health across the lifespan. These studies provide us with controlled, experimental avenues to answer clinically relevant questions that simply could not be addressed with human studies.

Harlow’s work also provides a classic example of how readily animal research can attract negative public sentiment and misrepresentation. Making the connections among animal studies, scientific progress, and advances in human health is the critical foundation for public understanding of why animal research is valuable. If people do not understand those connections, or do not understand why we cannot always turn to non-animal alternatives, then they may not appreciate why animal research should continue.  Lack of public understanding of science on other fronts—e.g., climate change, vaccines, and evolution—only increases the difficulty of scientists’ efforts to convey the importance of animal research.

All of this matters deeply to the future of research, psychology, and human health.  A choice to turn away from all animal research will have consequences. We would lose essential avenues for discovery. We would fail to realize continued progress in understanding the neural, behavioral, cognitive, developmental, physiological, genetic and biological processes that contribute to human and animal health and disease. Of special relevance to psychology, we would no longer be able to use the best systems to develop and assess new strategies for prevention and treatment of mental health disorders. Assessment of the safety and efficacy of new medications would be compromised.  The remaining path available to us, experimentation in humans, is one rejected many years ago in recognition of its failure on ethical grounds. In the absence of research with rodents (95% of all animal research subjects) and other animal models in which new medications and treatments can be developed and evaluated, new treatments will either not be used or will necessarily involve risky experimentation on humans.

New discoveries in a broad range of fields—gene therapy, epigenetics, neural prosthetics, pharmacotherapy, regenerative medicine—highlight the avenues by which animal studies contribute to our understanding and ability to improve human and animal health.  It may be that the public ultimately decides that the benefits are not worth the cost of using animals in research.  Our responsibility as scientists is to make sure that the decision is based on accurate information and thoughtful consideration of the full range of issues involved in this complex topic.  Scientists engaged in animal research certainly cannot accomplish this alone. They are, however, among those who see the potential implications of the recent IOM and NIH actions concerning chimpanzee research. These actions are not a single, limited case of restricting animal research for which there is nearly universal agreement; rather they may be another step along a trajectory that leads to the end of all animal research.

Responding to the challenges to animal research will require many voices in a sustained effort to advance public education and civil dialogue.  These challenges are urgent and require us to dedicate our time and energy now in order to prevent harm to the public in the future. 

For more information: 

Allyson J. Bennett, PhD, is on the faculty of the Psychology Department and a member of the Harlow Center for Biological Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  She is also a member of the American Psychological Association’s Committee on Animal Research and Ethics.

The views expressed in Perspectives are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of the American Psychological Association. Readers’ comments may be sent by email to the APA Science Directorate.