from The Guardian
May 2, 2002
The animal research I can't defend
Roborats give serious scientists the chance to draw an ethical line
I wouldn't describe myself as a rat-lover. If I saw a rat in my flat, I'd probably swear at it, throw something at it and call the exterminators - to kill not only that rat but any of its partners, friends and children within the walls. Were I a guest at a meal in one of those cultures which regards the rat as sound cuisine, I would happily eat it, providing it wasn't too rare, and didn't come with celery.
When it comes to scientists carrying out experiments on rats and other animals, I hold the same troubling view held, I suspect, by most people in this country. It's not exactly hypocritical, but nor is it noble, and for that reason is seldom put bluntly. It comes down to this: for the sake of helping ill human beings, I am prepared to accept scientists hurting, restricting and manipulating animals - even though I would be too squeamish to do such things to animals myself.
The difficulty is in deciding what constitutes acceptable research. Where do you draw the line? If you take the absolutist position of groups such as the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, which campaigns for an immediate end to all animal experiments, you don't have to. All animal experiments are unjustifiable, full stop.
But if, like most people, you don't buy the BUAV line, the standard attitude of scientists is equally hard to swallow. Apart from a handful of uncompromisingly anti-vivisectionist scientists, researchers who carry out experiments on animals close ranks.
The scientific community prefers to accept as equally justifiable all experiments on animals which are carried out within the law, and have been approved by local ethical committees. This is like believing that the very existence of courts of law is sufficient to ensure justice, and that to criticise them is to endanger justice. With scientists and anti-vivisectionists taking what is, effectively, an absolutist position, which way is a moderate but sceptical public to turn? Imagine the position of medical researchers engaged in the unlovely but, they hope, eventually human-helping tasks of damaging rats' spines to explore new ways of helping paralysed people move their limbs again. What will they feel when they look at the absurd graphic in today's Nature, showing a surgically modified rat, with an electronic rucksack on its little shoulders, about to negotiate an obstacle course in a project funded by the US defence department? Will they criticise it as the kind of experiment which gives animal research a bad name? Or will they remain silent, fearing that one scientist who experiments on animals can never criticise another?
One of the proposed uses for roborats is in mine clearance. The use of animals in warfare is ugly enough without the further insult to their dignity involved in turning them into involuntary cyborgs. And a military command committed to the use of creatures which are part-animal, part-machine, is going to be that bit less reluctant to interfere in its soldiers in similar ways. The US defence department's research agency, Darpa, says: "The human is becoming the weakest link in defence systems." One of its other programmes is researching how to make soldiers go up to seven days without sleep.
The prospect of roborats is a glorious opportunity for scientists who carry out serious medical experiments on animals to stand up and try to put some ethical distance between what they do and animal work related to the military, or to abstract scientific curiosity. It can work. Ian Wilmut, the pioneer of animal cloning, has been tireless in his public condemnation of human reproductive cloning, calculating correctly that the broader cloning field will gain more than it will lose from greater public awareness of different kinds of cloning.
There is little sign of mainstream scientists taking a similarly robust line on different kinds of animal experiments. When I approached Britain's Research Defence Society yesterday about the ratbots, the organisation - which lobbies for scientists' right to experiment on animals - refused to comment, saying that it would only deal with medical research issues. OK, but that contributes to the public impression that all scientists support all animal experiments, even the weird ones.
Without an informed critique from serious medical researchers of the work of their colleagues at the fringes, the lay person is left confused. Is there any experiment on animals which cannot be justified as "medical"?
It's possible to imagine a paper concluding that the results of an experiment "could prove useful in determining the nature of human brain damage in high-impact crushing accidents". This sounds worthwhile. But it could describe a researcher lining mice up on a table and hitting them with a cricket bat.
A recent article in Nature's US counterpart, Science, bemoaned the lack of a "model" for schizophrenia research. A model, in this context, is an animal bred or genetically modified to mimic the symptoms of a human disease.
The article continued: "For a disease such as depression, which is characterised by hopelessness, one can create a model in which a rat is trained to carry out a task for a reward that is hopelessly inaccessible. No such common sense approach is feasible for schizophrenia."
The remark suggests experiments by people on rats which reveal more about the people than they do about the rats. You don't have to be depressed to think that striving for a reward that always remains out of reach is a fair definition of the human condition - and that getting rats to model the human condition is not common sense. Many scientists, animal experimenters among them, will agree. Will they stand up and say so?