Ethics Committees

Finally, we need to say something about regulation. Animal research is not like sex. Many people think that certain sexual practices are immoral or distasteful, but it is generally acknowledged that what consenting adults do in their bedrooms is up to them. Perhaps, in good part, because animals are not "consenting adults" and have limited ability to defend their own interests, we do not take the same attitude to animal experiments. The recognition that animal treatment in the laboratory raises ethical questions leads quickly to a demand for regulation. This demand is surely reasonable. First, it is in the interest of society to ensure that ethical norms that prevail among us are adhered to. Second, if a research proposal raises moral issues, any decision about its acceptability must be made by a third party — an individual or body of individuals that is not involved in the relevant project and does not stand to gain from its completion. The researcher has a vested interest in his proposed investigation, since his career may depend on the results. Certainly, it is up to him or her to present the ethical and scientific case for the line of experimentation being proposed, but the decision about acceptability must be made by people who are independent and who can represent society as a whole.

For obvious reasons, verdicts on acceptability will ideally be based on extensive knowledge of the scientific area in question, the relevant animal welfare parameters, and ethics. In the majority of cases, a single individual is highly unlikely to possess such knowledge, and so the best way to ensure that decisions are properly informed is by forming an ethics committee. Such committees are indeed now mandatory in many countries. They usually employ researchers, animal specialists, people with training in law and ethics, animal advocates, and representatives of the general public. And they are not, in general, enemies of the researcher. They can, for example, be quite helpful in making suggestions about how to minimize animal distress.

Naturally, each member of the ethics committee will look at the ethical dilemmas research proposals raise in his or her own personal way. Committee members will agree, however, both that it is important to minimize any harm to animals and that animal experiments need to be justified by (primarily) human benefits. Once these broad principles are agreed upon, the committee needs to find a common language in which to describe animal costs and human benefits. However, if there are significant negative effects on animal welfare, the committee should — perhaps in dialogue with the researchers — find out whether it is possible to derive the same benefits in a way that will have a less harmful impact on the animals. And, at the end of the day, the committee must decide whether or not the experiment is acceptable. For interesting attempts to develop instruments for decision-making in ethics committees, see References 3, 33, and 34.

When they play a proactive role in the development of animal research projects, competent ethics committees function as a crucial interface between the research community and society in general. Researchers, whose future may depend on the ethical approval of the committee, are forced to present their projects in an accessible way and to think of alternatives. Because of this, the committee does not remove ethical responsibility from scientists — rather, it helps them to ensure that their activities are transparent and challenges them to proceed in an ethically sound way.

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