Tuesday, August 20

Question of animal testing goes far beyond ethics

This issue should be addressed by both sides with more education on facts and research findings

By Emmanuel Masongsong

Thank you for further illuminating the animal rights versus testing issue in “Billboard message forces viewers to rethink stance” (April 14), though I am frustrated that after so many years the sensationalism is still just as pervasive on both sides, and the fundamental issues have never gotten proper treatment.

I know it’s difficult to find a place to get started in discussing this topic, but my experience as a student, scientist and cancer researcher at UCLA over the past 12 years has revealed to me the crux of the problem: There is a systemic lack of education about animal research and ethics, both for the public and especially for student scientists.

Nearly all media coverage uses sound bites to condemn violence and threats by animal rights fanatics, with very little discussion of the substantive facts.

Skipping over this problem of educational awareness and focusing on activists yelling, “End animal research now,” is a gross oversight and unlikely to lead to any real changes. The same goes for coverage of competing “pro-tests,” tallying the number of chest-beating sign wavers on each side.

The public, UCLA and animal rights activists would benefit from more exposure to the following details: The ethical grounds against animal testing are very well-established; direct research on human cells and tissues is growing more common and even preferred by scientists for greater reliability and far lower cost; and there is mounting evidence that animal-based assumptions of human disease show major discrepancies that lead to potential harm.

Further, there is considerable resistance from multibillion dollar industries that provide the vast infrastructure and stand to profit hugely from continued animal research funding. Lastly, the astronomic cost of animal experiments leads to extraordinarily high costs of drugs and treatments that arise from these findings, which most people cannot readily afford.

Perhaps our society could take a step back and acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of people suffering from illnesses on planet Earth would benefit from the simplest, cheapest solution: access to clean water and nutritious food. Not pharmaceuticals.

But the most insidious and oft-neglected facet of this issue is: Students are indoctrinated from the beginning that animal testing is necessary simply because it is a tradition, whether or not various fields of medicine and biology have proven they are often too costly, inefficient or ineffective.

The reality is that it’s nearly impossible to switch from the “animal experimentation funding model” once you have already begun pursuing a research career, let alone being a currently funded researcher. I believe that the disconnect lies here, as animal rights protesters are expecting scientists to switch on ethical issues alone, yet the infrastructure, education and institutional support has not been put in place to make it a practical decision as well.

Thus, medical and biological students cannot even form their own conclusions about the usefulness or appropriate application of animal models because they only hear the much-distilled historical benefits. They never hear of the many failures, injuries and deaths from early animal experiments gone awry, and that animal research commonly distracts scientists from more accurate human-oriented research solutions to health problems.

Coverage of this issue must go beyond “end all animal research now” or not. Humanity definitely would not be where it is now without past animal research findings.

Still, the fact that animal research has and continues to be posed as the definitive answer to human health quandaries is a large obstacle.

Why do all critical viewpoints continue to be completely ignored in science education and in the current debate about animal research? I hope you agree, that the discussion need not only continue but expand upon the core of the issue, the lack of education and exposure to animal research alternatives.

Masongsong is a project specialist at the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics.

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