Debating Matters Final – “Inspiration Lecture: Pro-Test: Standing up for Science”
On 30 June, Pro-Test Committee members Tom Gartrell and James Panton took part in an “Inspiration Lecture” at the national final of the Institute of Ideas’ “Debating Matters Competition” at the Wellcome Trust in London. The competition gives A-level students the opportunity to argue over important ideas and current affairs. The Inspiration Lecture, “Pro-Test: Standing up for Science”, was intended to encourage an audience debate over the principles of animal testing, as well as demonstrating to students that the ideas they argue out in the debating chamber can have a very real impact in the public sphere. Considering that Pro-Test’s founder Laurie Pycroft is the same age as the Debating Matters participants, Pro-Test are clearly an inspiring model for how intellectually engaged youngsters can make a political impact.
Tom Gartrell introduced the event, explaining why Pro-Test was set up and forwarding both the scientific and ethical arguments for animal testing. James Panton then highlighted some of the broader and more controversial issues surrounding animal testing, including issues such as primate testing. The debate was then opened up to the students, who were able to question, dispute and develop the arguments already made, as well as raising ideas of their own.
Interestingly, the scientific arguments for animal testing were disputed by only one audience member. Otherwise, all appeared to accept the objective fact that animal testing works scientifically. After all, animals and humans have a lot in common in terms of their biology, so the former can serve as a very useful model of the latter. The main point of conflict for the students was whether animal testing is justified – given that it works and that human beings benefit from it. Since many anti-vivisectionist groups wrongly challenge the scientific validity of animal testing in order to further what is really an ethical position, it was refreshing to engage in a genuine debate over the real issues. Students challenged Pro-Test’s representatives with questions such as whether it would be justifiable to conduct scientific tests upon orphans or severely disabled people, whether life has objective value and whether humans are more important than animals.
The perceptive questions and comments raised by Debating Matters competitors are indicative of the some of the most important issues surrounding vivisection and how these arguments are largely ethical in their nature. Pro-Test and others campaigning in support of science would do well to engage in these arguments and promote this side of the public debate further.
Pro-Test at the Boyd Group
On 19th July, Pro-Test presented their ideas to the Boyd Group – a UK-based forum which discusses issues concerning animal research. The Group brings together scientists, antivivisectionists, philosophers, representatives from animal welfare charities, government members and others, allowing for a dialogue which clarifies the positions and concerns of these diverse parties, and to push for common goals where consensus exists. For Pro-Test to present their position in this context may seem unusual, since Pro-Test, while aiming to promote public debate concerning vivisection, does not seek common ground with those opposed to animal research. While Pro-Test recognises the right of antivivisectionists to hold their views, we entered the debate in order to inform the public about the importance of animal testing and win their support for it. However, the Boyd Group recognises that consensus may not always be possible and, in such cases, aims to highlight key areas of contention between different parties. It hopes that this will allow for a more informed public debate, rather than letting rhetoric rule the day. While Pro-Test has organised two noisy demonstrations, we are not about rhetoric and certainly support reasoned debate. The marches, as well as being shows of solidarity with scientists and the academic community at Oxford, were attempts to draw attention to the important issues which we want discussed. It was therefore useful for Pro-Test to contribute to the Boyd Group in order to highlight these arguments.
Tom Gartrell from the Pro-Test Committee spoke to the Group of Pro-Test’s aims and activities, and made the scientific and ethical arguments for animal testing. A wide ranging debate followed, raising issues such as whether human consciousness and the ability to test on animals make it justified, the differences between testing and torture, and whether, in so-called “marginal” cases, humans should be tested upon. The Group also wondered whether Pro-Test’s “extreme” position detracts from the “middle ground” and finding commonalities between both sides of the debate. Some scientists at the group certainly view some animal experiments as unnecessary and felt that humans should discriminate between “useful” and “useless” experiments. Pro-Test, however, supports open-ended research that may not be directly relevant to developing new treatments, since such tests often lead to a greater understanding of various biological processes and can, in turn, lead onto the discovery of useful treatments. We do not support needless cruelty to animals – such acts are a poor reflection of our humanity and amount to torture. However, we do not view animal testing for scientific purposes as needless, since it allows many human beings to benefit from medical progress, as well as increasing our understanding of biology generally.
One of the major scourges of modern journalism is what media watchers call "false balance". This is where journalists want so much to look "balanced" that they inject balance into a story where none actually exists. We see it all the time as stories degenerate into a "he says, she says" format where the reader is left completely baffled as to whether there's any truth, or just two equally valid competing opinions.
A good example was the Independent's recent feature on animal testing, which presents a "Yes/ No" section at the end with completely contradictory information in it. Since some of the information relates to scientific fact, both interpretations cannot - by definition - be true. One is right, the other is wrong. It's not a matter of opinion.
The same problem plagued the Newsnight debate on animal research on BBC2 this week (view it here). The format itself induced false balance: Mel Broughton, a convicted arsonist and animal rights campaigner was put up in a head-to-head against Pro-Test's Tipu Aziz, who is one of Europe's leading neurosurgeons and a professor of neuroscience at Oxford University. Broughton is interested in only one thing: banning animal testing. He does not care about the science. Last time I challenged him and some fellow travellers at their regular stand in Oxford city centre, Broughton told me that a computer model of the entire human body had just been invented, so there was no need for animal research. Of course, that was a total lie - no such model exists, and as our recent post on the 3Rs illustrated, we are nowhere near developing one. The problem is that anti-science campaigners like Broughton are quite adept at wielding fraudulent statistic and pseudo-scientific language that can sound quite convincing to people without a background in science (which would include me!).
But it was left to Oxford MP Evan Harris to point out that the vast majority of scientific opinion favours continued animal research, and that only a few ideologically-committed and totally isolated individuals like French professor Claude Reiss oppose it. Newsnight was content to let anti-science campaigners from organisations like the BUAV and Europeans for Medical 'Progress' claim that scientific opinion was split. It's not. There is reason and fact on one side of this debate, and anti-reason and pure emotion on the other, as a recent article on Hidden Agendas illustrated.
Claude Reiss has been thoroughly discredited by the scientific community: during his time at the academic journal Biogenic Amines, he allowed articles by his friend Jarrod Bailey from anti-vivisection campaigning group Europeans for Medical 'Progress' to get published in the journal without peer review. Peer review is a process where scientists read each other's work prior to publication to make sure facts and methods have been checked and are scientifically sound. Abandoning it allows people to publish lies or misleading information that are legitimised by the reputation of the journal. The editor of Biogenic Amines said of Claude Reiss: "After his 2 years stay in the editorial board, he did lots of harm to the journal and we all forced him to resign." Yet Reiss is invited to speak with the full authority of the title "professor" and no mention of his completely discredited reputation is made.
Similarly, a remarkable amount of air time was given to Oxford graduate Sharon Howe and her cronies. Ms Howe grabbed a few column inches by "handing her degree back" to Oxford in protest at the construction of the Oxford biomedical research facility. What we don't hear is that she handed back only her Oxford MA - a special degree for which no additional work is required past the undergraduate level and for which a fee is paid, usually about £20, effectively a money-making process for Oxford colleges - and her original degree was English literature, which hardly gives her the authority to pronounce on scientific issues. Likewise, her sidekick, the "fellow of Mansfield college" who scandalously accused the University of suppressing those who dissented from the building of the lab (actually, the reverse is true, but that's another story), is a lecturer in philosophy - again, not scientist. Howe's group, unsurprisingly, contains no scientists and has no backing in Oxford's scientific community. But again, these people are consulted on the specific question as to whether animal research is effective.
Newsnight, to their credit, divided the issue up sensibly into scientific, ethical and political parts. There are indeed different issues at stake: scientifically, does it work, does it yield useful results? Ethically, even if it does work, are we justified in doing it? And politically, if you don't think we are justified, what methods of protest or resistance are valid, e.g., is violence appropriate?
On the science, ask scientists. Don't allow people who are coming at the debate from the ethical side of the argument to spin falsehoods about how it's "backwards" or claim that since "animals are not people", it can't work. There is one point of view in the scientific community, the people who actually know: it does work. Every medical advance and all future cures will flow from animal research. Fact - not opinion.
On the ethics, ask whoever you like. But then we should be curious when someone like Mel Broughton gets all tongue-tied when asks about the ethics, eventually stammering that it's irrelevant because the science is bad. Utterly false. And then to claim, as he did, that he wouldn't kill a malarial mosquito to save his own life, is surely ridiculous. But the convoluted argument he made flowed directly from the fact that he was confronted - as were we all - with the incredibly moving sight of Tipu Aziz's patient, Mike Robbins, demonstrating the amazing device that Tipu installed in his brain to control his Parkinson's. Mike, who has bravely tried to demonstrate this device at Oxford Town Hall in the past, only to be set upon by anti-vivisectionists, went from uncontrollable spasms to completely normal, and vice versa, at the flick of a switch. Newsnight presenter Gavin Esler rightly demanded of Broughton: "would you deny Mike Robbins this treatment?" And Broughton could not, on live TV, answer honestly and say "yes". In reality, that's exactly what he would do.
And this, really, is what the animal research issue boils down to: science provides insight into, and treatments and cures for, all manner of human ailments; some of us want the benefits of modern medical science to be available to everyone and for scientists to feel confident and proud of their work; some of us would deny those treatments by destroying the means by which they are achieved. It is not a battle of animals versus people, it is a political struggle between those who support science, and those who oppose it.
The press has continued to report Home Office figures showing the total number of animal research procedures has increased for the first time in 14 years, as explained in the previous blog entry. Today, the Oxford Mailasked Oxford University if it would release details of the number of animals used in its laboratories. Its spokesman said:
"We will not be releasing a breakdown of the figures because we are concerned about possible retribution from animal activists."
This is an incredible statement for all sorts of reasons. First, universities simply don't release breakdowns of figures, anyway. The figures are compiled by the Home Office and individual institutions do not publish their own figures. So the remark betrays considerable ignorance.
But more importantly than that, it betrays the University's continued refusal to come out fighting in defence of its academics and the huge contributions they make to science and to society. Months after Pro-Test first urged them to end their ostrich strategy and help make the positive case for animal research, they are still burying their heads in the sand and hoping the problem will go away. It won't, until people are convinced of the positive reasons why they should support continued animal research in the UK.
Pro-Test believes in openness, because scientists have nothing to be ashamed of, and the more information people have, the less ammunition is lent to anti-science campaign groups who can claim that the university has something to hide. We are proud of the work Oxford's scientists do, even if their own university isn't. And finally, saying "we don't want you to know something that will make you attack us", is tantamount to saying the university deserves to be attacked -- the use of the word "retribution" actively concedes that the university is doing something wrong!
Retribution, noun, 1. the act of punishing or taking vengeance for sin or wrongdoing; 2. deserved punishment, especially for sin or wrongdoing; vengeance (Chambers English Dictionary).
It's high time Oxford University ditched this hyper-defensive attitude and proudly stood up for its scientists and the work they do. Their failure to do so is the only "sin or wrongdoing" being committed here.
Recent press reports on the "3 Rs" and rising number of animal experiments
The 3 Rs
There has been some interesting press coverage recently of the so-called "3 Rs", three principles that govern the use of scientific research using animals, namely, replace, refine and reduce. Despite the claims of anti-science campaign groups that these are regulations developed as a result of their campaigning, these principles were actually developed by scientists themselves and are fully consistent with the most basic standards one would expect of any scientific research. They are also enshrined in the Animal Procedures Act of 1986.
Because our humanity compels us not to waste animal life senselessly, we should replace the use of animals in research wherever possible, wherever some other method can yield equally useful results. Scientists have been doing this for many decades and alternative methods of testing have always coexisted alongside the use of animals, such as computer modelling of proteins, the use of cell cultures, etc.
Refinementis a central principle of all scientific experimentation: all scientists aim to refine the methods they use in order to get more accurate results from fewer experiments - it's about efficiency. Be it the number of test tubes put in an incubator or the number of mice used to test a substance, scientists want to get accurate results as quickly and cost-effectively as possible, always seeking to build better, more accurate models as they do so.
Reductionflows from the principle of refinement: the better our understanding of our testing models becomes, the fewer test subjects we need. This does not refer to a reduction in the overall number of animals used per year, say, but a reduction in the number of animals used in a given experiment or for a given procedure. Again, it's scientific common sense: if you don't need to use 3 mice, don't use 3 mice, just use what's required to get the results - maybe one mouse, maybe none at all. As science evolves and revolutionises its understanding of the world, we are frequently able to do just this.
The 3Rs are, then, good practice, whether you are using animals, or some other method. They arose from what scientists naturally do. There is even a National Centre for the 3Rs to help share knowledge and expertise across research communities.
The BBC recently ran an excellent feature on the 3Rs, interviewing scientists who work on developing non-animal models: computer modelling, in vitro and imaging techniques. It's worth a full read. Below, I'll just highlight a few key points to help put the 3Rs in context and to help explain these scientists' remarks about why 'alternative' methods cannot at present replace animal research. (See also the BBC report on the development of alternatives towards an 'animal free' laboratory, which accurately reveals how far off we are from that vision.)
Professor Dennis Noble and his team work here in Oxford and developed the first "virtual heart" using computers. Prof Noble has been working on this project for 46 years and now has a working model using highly sophisticated computer technology. But, he says:
"Because hundreds of millions of differential equations are simultaneously being solved, it may take 30 hours just to do a few beats of the heart."
Even with today's technology, it's (perhaps surprisingly) slow. Why? Because the human heart, like any organ, is incredibly complex, and even the most powerful number-crunching machine has hundreds of millions of sums to do every second just to model that one organ. Imagine how many calculations would be required to model the whole body! And we'd have to develop the technology first, which is many, many years away.
"I would say the real benefit of the model is that it can do a preliminary filter of your compounds, and that can replace some of the very early stages in animal experimentation."
This is the crucial part: Prof Noble states that the computer models can not replace animal models outright. They can only substitute in the very early stages of research. So procedures that once required an animal can now be done on a computer: animal models have been replaced for this procedure. But of course there will come a stage when we need to, first, check to see if the model got it right for the heart; and second (and most crucially), see how a compound like a drug affects the whole organism.
When you swallow a drug, your stomach has to digest it, and the drug has to be absorbed into your bloodstream, processed by your liver, and distributed around your body. Even if it's injected, it must still be metabolised by the liver. Because we just don't have the technology to model an entire human body, we simply don't know what will happen when we inject or ingest a drug. It could be destroyed by stomach acid, or it could become fatally toxic when metabolised in the liver, or simply lose the properties that made it apparently effective on the computer model. So, as Prof Noble says, computer models are a great way to reduce the use of animals in the early stages of research, and they are extensively used for just this purpose, but we still need animals to complement this method. The alternative would be to introduce drugs straight into human beings, which could often be disastrous, given that we don't know what the effects would be on an entire organism.
The next method discussed in the feature is in vitro testing - testing things in a test tube, on the micro level. Dr Phil Stephens has pioneered an in vitro test for ulcer treatments based on genetic manipulation. He says:
"There are a number of different animal models out there, but they are not really good models for these wounds. So, we began developing an in vitro system."
This is a great example of refinement. Scientists always want a better model for their experiments so as to get better (more accurate) results. If a non-animal method can work better than an animal method, great! Not only does it yield better results, it's a hell of a lot cheaper, too (animal breeding, purchasing, transportation, care, feeding, housing, monitoring, etc, costs an enormous amount of money). But, Dr Stephens also notes:
"The in vitro system is not going to replace the animal models, but it will enable a vast number of pre-screens to be undertaken, hopefully vastly reducing the number of animal experiments that go on."
Again, although the aim is to refine the models and reduce the number of animal experiments, Stephens notes that in vitro testing cannot replace animal testing altogether. The reasons for this are fairly similar to the above: a drug might work fine on a cell in a test tube, but how will it work in a body? A test tube has no blood circulatory system, no liver, no brain, no nervous system at all, and so on. We just don't know whether it would work for sure until we try it on a living creature. And again, it's either animals, or us, that we have to trial the drugs on next.
Finally, Professor Chris Higgins of the Medical Research Council discusses his use of MRI imaging to reduce the need for animal experiments:
"One area we are looking at is what controls appetite and satiety. To do this in the traditional way, we would have to dissect the animal brain, but to avoid this we use in vivo imaging to look at the areas of the brain related to hunger and satiety."
Rapid advances in technology have allowed us to get to the stage where scientists can use scanning to see how certain parts of the brain "light up" under certain conditions, giving us clues about what parts of the brain control different aspects of our bodies, thoughts, cravings, and so on, and clues about how the brain works. However, Prof Higgins goes on:
"the one thing that is difficult to do is to understand the genetic and the underlying molecular basis of obesity, and for this we need to use animals, mainly mice, if we are going to develop more effective therapies."
So again, although this 'alternative' can fulfil a useful role and help reduce the number of animals used, it can not replace animal testing altogether. This is because there is no single cause to the problem under investigation - in this case, obesity (though it is true of many conditions). Watching how the brain works can help us understand part of the problem, but it also occurs on the genetic and molecular level, which MRI scans cannot show us. We need a more invasive technique - and again, the choice is between using those techniques on animals, or on humans.
Reducing and Increasing: What's wrong with the 3Rs?
All this talk of replacing, refinement and replacement as scientific common sense sounds fine, but then people were perhaps shocked to learn in recent press reports that the total number of animals used in experiments has risen this year, reversing a 14-year-long decline. How can scientists be "reducing" and "replacing" animals, if the numbers of animals used is going up?
Well, as we said earlier, the reduce part of the 3 Rs relates to reducing the number of animals used in a given procedure to make it more efficient -- not reducing the number of animals used in total across medical science. The call to "reduce" flows from the basic scientific principle of using the lowest numbers of experiments possible to get the data needed to understand something, not from a political/moral principle that the use of animals should be abolished -- and rightly so. Science takes place within a tightly-regulated ethical framework, but its procedures are guided by scientific rationality.
So, why is the number of animals used going up? There's a range of reasons. The most exciting and positive reason is that we are living in a "golden age" of medical science. Within the last few decades we have developed our understanding of humans and animals in their diseased and normal states very quickly. The mapping of the human genome was a remarkable step forward in understanding how the human body works, and it has opened the door to refining animal models even further. Mice are the most commonly-used animals for research purposes, because, surprisingly for many non-scientists, they have many genetic similarities to human beings, so they make good models for predicting what will happen when things are tried out on humans. With new genetic technology, we are now able to work on developing a "transgenic mouse": a genetically-modified breed of mouse that has even more genetic similarity to human beings, which makes it an even better model for humans. Once this project is completed, we will have an excellent model that will ultimately reduce the numbers of mice needed for research. But the development of the transgenic mouse will require the use of many more mice in the short term. This is a major reason for the number of animals being used in research going up.
There are other reasons, too. One is shifting epidemiology, i.e., changes in the patterns of what conditions/ diseases humans are suffering from. Humans (at least in affluent societies) are living a lot longer than they used to, because, thanks in large part to animal research, people are no longer dying from the old killers like TB, polio, measles, etc. As a result, people increasingly suffer from other sorts of medical problems as they age, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimers, which are predominantly conditions of old age. The development of treatments and cures for these conditions require both the use of more animals for research purposes, and specifically the use of primates. This is because they are diseases of the brain. The complexity of the human brain is staggering, and only primate brains offer a reasonable model with which to understand what is happening as a result of these conditions, and how to stop them. Pro-Test advisor Prof Tipu Aziz pioneered a treatment for Parkinson's as a result of experiments on monkeys based on "deep brain stimulation".
Other reasons are more political than medical. The EU Commission recently announced its intention to order toxicity testing on 30,000 chemicals which have never been subject to testing before, with a total of 140,000 identified for potential testing to date. Toxicity testing always involves animal testing at some stage.
So the issues around the 3 Rs are very complex. A crucial task for groups like Pro-Test who want to make the case for animal research will be to explain why, despite all the talk of "reducing", the use of animals in research has begun to increase and will continue to do so in the short-term. This must involve being totally honest about what the 3 Rs actually are. They are scientific good practice and common sense. They are not, in and of themselves, a justification for animal research. The 3 Rs are often invoked in a purely defensive way by scientists who are challenged by anti-vivisectionists opposed to their work: "Oh, but we use the 3 Rs! We try to replace, refine and reduce!" Animal research is not positively justified by implying that you try to do it as little as possible and hope to phase it out in due course. It might wash in the short term while the numbers of animals used is declining - as it has for the last 14 years - but it looks suddenly very thin and vulnerable when the numbers start to go up, making people wonder what the "reduce" claim is really all about.
The challenge for scientists and their supporters, then, is to explain what the 3 Rs really mean, and to go beyond them. The 3 Rs are sound scientific practice; but so is calculating to three decimal places or rounding to zero from 0.4. They're not a justification for the practice itself. The rising numbers of animals being used in research should be a wake-up call to scientists to start making arguments that genuinely and proudly support animal research as a necessary and integral part of the "golden age" of medical science: that it is an essential and irreplaceable model for understanding the human body, and that it has contributed and will continue to contribute massively to the development of treatments and cures for human ailments.
Pro-Test has been working hard over the last month or so to take stock, develop our mission statement and formulate a strategic campaigning plan for the short, medium and long term. We've also been working with a number of people outside of Oxford to start up regional Pro-Test groups to take the positive message about animal research to the streets of other cities around the UK - and further afield. Watch this space for more details! We're also working to develop our website, collating more facts to help people rebut the false claims of anti-vivisectionists, and will be posting a number of essays on the ethical issues around animal research very soon.
We've also been sending representatives to public debates and are often asked now to present on animal research issues at schools.
Chris Bickerton spoke on Friday 16 June to the Oxford Humanists, the Oxford-based branch of the British Humanist Association. He was speaking on the ethics of animal research. The discussion was wideranging, from research on great apes and cosmetic testing, to the role of pharmaceutical companies in scientific research.
On Thursday 13 July, Chris also appeared live on Talk Back, a show broadcast by Legal TV, a new channel on Sky. Chris debated for half an hour with Tim Phillips, campaigns director of the National Anti-vivisection Society (NAVS).
This Thursday, 27 July, Pro-Test scientific advisor Professor Tipu Aziz will be appearing on a Newsnight special focusing on animal research. He will be squaring up to Kathy Archibald of Europeans for Medical "Progress", who have been repeatedly censured by the Advertising Standards Authority for publishing misleading and false information in their literature; and Mel Broughton, convicted arsonist and leader of anti-science group SPEAK - itself also recently slammed (again!) by the ASA for publishing more misleading information. Tune in to BBC2 at 10.30pm to watch the sparks fly.