Sensitising science to research involving animals


Dr Rebekah Humphreys, senior lecturer at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, and specialist in applied ethics, considers how it is possible to become desensitised to the use of animals for scientific research.


Humphreys explores our emotional responses and moral feelings towards animals within the context of research. She considers those who work in animal research, and the legislation surrounding animal testing.


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Hello and welcome to Research Pod! Thank you for listening and joining us today.  


Studies suggest that our emotional responsivity to animals can sometimes be treated as unnecessary in the context of research involving animals.  


Dr Rebekah Humphreys, senior lecturer at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David, and specialist in applied ethics, considers how it is possible to become desensitised to the use of animals for scientific research. Humphreys explores our emotional responses and moral feelings towards animals within the context of research. She considers those who work in animal research and the legislation surrounding animal testing. 


Humphreys defines this lack of emotional responsiveness for experimental testing as desensitisation. Humphreys questions whether and why our ‘norms’ of what’s acceptable differ depending on the context; how or why researchers tend to or have to compartmentalise to carry out their work; and how research language and media portrayals downplay or ignore the fact that animals are used in this way and why this might lead to problems.  


Animals are used in medical research to help to develop new drugs and treatments for humans and to test procedures, treatments, and medications on a living body. Under current frameworks, the use of animals remains the only way for some areas of research – such as biomedical research and medicine development – to progress. They are also used in toxicity tests on products and ingredients, with approximately ‘80,000 used in poisoning tests each year in the EU alone’ in 2002, according to the British animal rights organisation Animal Aid.  

Humphreys, a specialist in applied ethics, puts forward the idea that desensitisation – to become emotionally unresponsive or emotionally indifferent to the suffering of animals – most commonly happens when moral feelings towards the animals are seen as unnecessary or inappropriate.  

Other researchers argue that such desensitisation is found in those who work in animal laboratories, where it might be necessary to become emotionally indifferent to using animals to carry out the work. That is, workers must become desensitised to the animals around them. Such desensitisation to animal use in the research environment is likely a reflection of the social norms established in those settings. These norms are different to those outside of the laboratory. 


Humphreys posits several reasons why desensitisation of research involving animals is considered acceptable. Studies suggest that scientific research is commonly considered a justifiable reason for such use of animals. Humphreys highlights the work of others that put forward the idea that we see animals as abstractions. We may anthropomorphise animals in other settings, such as cartoons, and we might accord our pets human-like characteristics. Still, in the clinical conditions of a laboratory, we believe that animals serve a purpose. The argument here is that animal testing or research on animals is necessary to achieve scientific progress, particularly in a medical context, and the importance of this scientific progress justifies the use of animals. However, Humphreys argues that this is not sufficient justification. She proposes that the acquisition of knowledge, even knowledge that could be beneficial to humanity, is not necessarily a virtuous activity. She argues that ‘one may have the right motives, but the action itself may be unethical.’  


The second reason that desensitisation to research involving animals is deemed acceptable for experimentation is that animals used for scientific testing are seen and treated differently from all other animals. For example, separate laws exist for the treatment of pet animals and experimental animals, whereby there are substantially more legal responsibilities around the welfare of pets than experimental animals. Humphreys has considered the legislation around animals used in research and the extent to which it protects those animals. For example, the UK Animals Scientific Procedures Act of 1986 and EU Directive 2010/63/EU. She found that although there are tight restrictions on what can be done to animals, many of these restrictions can be lifted if they are incompatible with the scientific objectives of the research. She argues that this suggests that ‘welfare needs, then, can be sacrificed for practicality.’ 


Humphreys refers to the tendency to distinguish between animal suffering in an experimental setting versus animal suffering in real life as compartmentalisation. More specifically, she argues that desensitisation to research involving animals in research settings may occur due to the compartmentalisation of moral and professional spheres.  


Humphreys raises the critical question regarding animal research: would we be willing to inflict similar treatment on humans? Evidence suggests that many animal species used in experimental testing have similar capacities for pain and emotion as humans do, so how can we justify allowing animals to suffer for the research if we would not allow humans to suffer the same way? Going further, Humphreys questions how we would react if we saw an animal being treated the same way they are in an experiment outside of a lab. We would likely strongly oppose this type of animal suffering outside of a scientific setting. 


Media portrayals of research involving animals may exacerbate desensitisation. Humphreys argues that media reports on scientific outcomes tend to portray animal experimentation as ‘for the good of humanity’, and the welfare of the animals is largely ignored. She also notes that language used about research involving animals can be misleading. For example, that pain tends to be described in terms of responses to experimental stimuli and distress tends to be depicted as a stress response.  


Humphreys also explores the topic of desensitisation with those working within the research environment. Some theorists argue that the actions of those working in animal research laboratories indicate a lack of virtue in those people. Many, however, strongly disagree with this idea, believing that animal researchers are not necessarily indifferent to the suffering of animals. Indeed, as Humphreys notes, many researchers take the ethical questions of animal use very seriously. The social norms of the environment, the necessity to carry out the work, and the justification of advancing science, make it understandable that compartmentalisation and desensitisation may be seen in those who work directly with the animals, experimenting and conducting research on them. Yet, Humphreys asks the question: does this make their desensitisation and their actions towards animals acceptable? 


Humphreys notes that, of course, not all animal experiments are morally unjustifiable. Some experiments are carried out on humans, for example. However, one key difference between testing humans and animals is that humans give informed consent to participate in the experiment while animals cannot. Building upon this argument and others, Humphreys is currently working on a book to be published next year by Palgrave titled Animals, ethics and language: The philosophy of meaningful communication in the lives of animals. 


Humphreys argues that the compartmentalisation between the use of animals in research environments and ordinary non-laboratory settings can influence judgements about the practical use of animals for research. 


She argues that further philosophical, psychological, and physiological research is needed to fully understand experimental animals’ experiences and possible suffering. Humphreys acknowledges that if we are to challenge animal experimentation on the grounds that animals have inherent worth and are entitled to similar protection from harm as humans, independent of their use for humans, then we are obliged to give them sufficient justice – and traditional theories of justice will need to change. 


That’s all for this episode – thanks for listening, and stay subscribed to Research Pod for more of the latest science. See you again soon. 



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