Professor Peter Singer does not take an absolutist position on the ethics of using animals in scientific research.
The world-renowned ethicist and philosopher, based at Princeton University in the US, has been revisiting the issue of experimentation on animals, in updating and republishing his most famous book – Animal Liberation Now – after more than 40 years.
In the book, Singer writes: “it will not do to say ‘Never!’” when it comes to scientific and medical research.
In conversation with Cosmos, Singer clarifies. He says there may be examples of lifesaving research, where even after giving full weight to the interests of animals, the research might still be justified by the very large number of people who will benefit, if it comes off – if there are genuinely no alternatives.
“But I think it’s quite rare, and I don’t think the system that we have of assessing experiments is really rigorous enough to allow only those sorts of experiments to pass.”
Much of the research on animals today is not about developing life-saving drugs, he says. A lot of the substances being tested are not essential. They might be a new sunscreen or cleaning agent, or a rival pharmaceutical company working on an alternative to a tried-and-tested medicine in order to gain a slice of that lucrative market.
“A very substantial proportion of the research that is done on animals, is not for urgent, lifesaving conditions, and would not be justified if we were to consider the interests of the animals in a serious and significant way, as I think we should,” he says.
It continues to take place, he says, “because the animals become tools for research. The experimenter has no problem ordering another batch of a couple of 100 mice to do research on. I think that’s the problem.”
Significant numbers of animals are used in scientific and medical research in Australia and other countries. Based on available data, Singer’s book estimates as many as 15.6 million animals are experimented on in the US, and more than 52 million in China.
“A very substantial proportion of the research that is done on animals, is not for urgent, lifesaving conditions, and would not be justified if we were to consider the interests of the animals in a serious and significant way, as I think we should.”Peter Singer
As Cosmos has previously reported, some 700,000 mice and 30,000 rats are used in research in Australia based on statistics from 3 states. Advocates say the national figure is likely in excess of 1 million rodents, in addition to other laboratory animals.
In Australia, all research involving animals is required to seek approval through Animal Ethics Committees and must consider the “3Rs” of replacement, reduction and refinement.
Singer says he has previously served on an animal ethics committee at Monash University. He believes that while there is some value in the process, it doesn’t go far enough.
“Too often the majority of the committee are scientists already trained and set in that way of doing research,” he says.
That makes it hard for researchers to see the alternatives, even though that could potentially lead to better scientific outcomes.
In his book, Singer highlights problems relating to the transferability of animal research. He quotes Richard Klausner, a former director of the US National Cancer Institute as saying: “We have cured mice of cancer for decades and it simply didn’t work in humans”.
Speaking with Cosmos, Singer mentions a presentation from the 12th World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences, an event at which he delivered the closing address.
Researchers in Canada tested substances on laboratory mice housed in two different set ups. One group of mice were kept in the standard way, in small containers the size of a shoebox, with a grid on top and bright lights, which he describes as “quite stressful conditions for mice”.
Meanwhile another group of mice were housed in quarters more suitable to their nature, with places they could hide, and tunnels to run through.
“The basic question is, are these animals who can suffer?”Peter Singer
Singer says, the researchers found when they tested substances on two groups, they got quite different reactions depending on the conditions the mice were kept in.
This raises questions about the veracity of experimental results involving animals like mice, already stressed by the laboratory environment and practices.
Do mice and rats deserve greater ethical consideration in science?
“The basic question is, are these animals who can suffer?,” Singer replies.
He says there’s no doubt that mice and rats – which represent the majority of laboratory animals used in science and research – can suffer. They’re mammals, vertebrates, with the same basic nervous system and brains like humans, albeit significantly smaller.
“In some respects, because they don’t understand this situation, things may be more terrifying to them than they would be to us,” he says.
“I certainly think that they count.”