Animal research: for or against? And why?

We know that opinion is divided on the use of animals in research among this strange and troubling crowd we call “the public”. For that reason, research institutes dedicate substantial effort to controlling the message they deliver.  But how much do we really know about what people typically think about the use of animals in research, and what influences those views?

A fascinating article came my way recently. Its title is 'Public Attitudes toward the Use of Animals in Research: Effects of Invasiveness, Genetic Modification and Regulation’. The authors set out to test hypotheses in public support for animal research, based on the level of invasiveness, the presence of regulations and whether animals had been genetically modified. To do this they conducted an online study – or engagement exercise –to determine who supports animal research and for what reasons. Vegetarianism, environmental advocacy, familiarity with animal welfare and familiarity with animal research were all investigated as demographic variables. Interesting findings include:

  • Older people were significantly less likely to oppose the use of animals in research
  • Familiarity with animal research is associated with decreased support for the use of research animals
  • Support for invasive research increases where regulation is in place
  • Regulation had little effect on support for the use of GM animals in research

The authors also speculate about the decision making (or moral) frameworks people use when assessing their support for different kinds of animal research. For example, if the presence of regulation has little effect on their approval of GM research, they ask whether standard harm-minimisation models such as the ‘three Rs’ – replacement, reduction and refinement – are capable of conveying the right sort of information which people need to base their decisions on.

The paper is written by authors at the University of British Columbia, an institution which is unusually transparent about the numbers of animals it uses in research and the purpose for which they are used.

Universities in Australia will reach their own decisions about how much and what kind of information they’re willing to share with the public. However to date there is no evidence that animal research at UBC has abated because of their openness and responsiveness to critics. If the conversation with those who oppose animal research can continue with each side in possession of the genuinely helpful information, the quality of the debate – and the moral outlook – will surely improve.

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Clare McCausland