Dear Science,

Why do scientists still do so much animal research? Aren't there a whole bunch of tests now available that don't require the killing of animals? I've read about things like cell and organ culture and computational biology. Aren't these methods more accurate, less costly, and generally better science? I've read that animal tests don't really tell us much about how things work in people—experiments on humans are the key. Didn't the major scientific journal Nature even recently publish an article making that very point? It seems wrong to subject animals to suffering and pain in experiments that really don't help human health.

Concerned Animal Lover

Performing an experiment in an American research lab—particularly in an academic, government-funded research lab—is an astoundingly onerous task. A packet of paperwork on the scale of a moderately sized town's phonebook must be completed and renewed annually. Regulations are scrupulously adhered to—under threat of an individual lab or entire university losing funding. Every one of these packets must have a justification for the experiment, an accounting of the number of animals you must use (with documentation that you cannot accomplish the task with fewer), and, finally, a section indicating you've exhausted the alternative, non-animal-using approaches. Even in the interval decade that your correspondent has been working in labs, there has been a noticeable tightening of the rules and oversight of animal-based experiments. Thanks to these regulations (hard fought for by animal-rights activists), no scientists in their right minds do an experiment involving animals that can be done some other way.

Cells growing in a dish or experiments run on a computer only get one so far. Some of the trickiest outstanding questions in biology—the questions most important for medical research—require a complete organism with all the interlocking parts that make up a living thing. Most important drugs work on that level; things invented in a dish often fail when faced with the hundreds of cell types all interacting in a full organism. Mice, most often of all mammals, end up the subjects of modern biological research. Their nonhumanness—the short life spans, quick breeding cycles, genomes amenable to manipulation, and carefully established and maintained inbred strains—make mice invaluable in new medical and biological discoveries. Humans are wondrously complex, hugely outbred, and long living, and therefore a terrible (and, needless to say, unethical) starting point for the testing of most new medical ideas.

Scientists reluctantly resort to animal research. Contrary to some of the propaganda, most of my colleagues who have worked with animals have felt a genuine and deep respect for the sacrifice—painfully balancing the ethical considerations in their work. Even Tom Regan would be proud of them.

Reluctantly Yours,


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