Skip to 0 minutes and 9 secondsI'm a wildlife ecologist and that often involves surveying, sometimes capturing animals, and we need to ask ourselves the question about whether the techniques we're using are appropriate for the questions being asked, whether they are doing the minimal harm possible to those animals for the maximum amount of gain in terms of information that we can get that will ideally benefit those species as well. So ethics really covers a whole range of different areas. But it's absolutely crucial that scientists behave in an ethical way. Otherwise, yeah, the science is questionable, but also the public mistrust I think, becomes a really big issue as well. A real challenge with predator research is understanding the effect of one species on another.

Skip to 0 minutes and 48 secondsAnd of course, to really do that experimentally is quite difficult because it means manipulating the numbers of one animal and then seeing the response in another. Now that poses a really quite confronting ethical challenge because removing animals from the landscape or excluding them from whatever way to take them out of the environment is very controversial because obviously you're causing harm in many cases, and you're certainly interfering with the environment. So I think any time that we really are conducting an experiment in the field with wild animals, wild other organisms, plants, and so forth, we really need to be thinking very carefully about, is this the best way we can answer this question?

Skip to 1 minute and 28 secondsOr are there alternatives that are potentially less invasive and having less negative effects on those plants and animals and so forth in environments? One solution potentially is rather than going in there and directly manipulating things, we can instead look at situations where we have a contrast already in management. So as an example with the dingo, we can look at areas where dingoes are already being controlled by farmers, and other areas where they're not, but where the environment is otherwise quite similar.

Skip to 1 minute and 56 secondsAnd then we can measure the responses in other things that we care about in those environments, whether it be kangaroo numbers, feral cat numbers, fox numbers and so forth, and see if there's a consistent pattern that we can relate to that difference in management. So rather than actually doing that sort of intervention ourselves, which has a whole range of ethical considerations, we can essentially measure-- what we're interested in the same time, but without doing that work ourselves. So there are alternatives. It's a tricky business to find the perfect scenario for manipulating systems to get the answers we want but again we should always be thinking about, are there less invasive ways of studying environments and species?

Considerations for animal research

Research involving animals is an explosive topic internationally. Let’s explore the key ethical issues.

The BBC (2014) sums up the two basic positions on animal experimentation in our society today - in favour and against.

1. In favour

Those in favour tend to accept the idea of research experiments using animal subjects, only when suffering can be minimised and humans will gain benefits that could not be achieved otherwise.

2. Against

Those against animal experimentation maintain it is always unacceptable, because of the suffering it causes and argue the benefits to humans aren’t proven - and if there were to be benefits, there must be other ways to produce them.

Is this a moral or an ethical issue?

Whether you agree or not on the use of animals in research is a moral question. It’s a personal judgement. However, this course is about ethics in research, not personal morals. The reality is, animals are used in some types of research in our society, so we must consider what the ethical expectations are around that.

It’s also worth noting that while animal research can relate to early testing of therapies and medical procedures that will ultimately be used for humans, it also includes wildlife work. For example, research carried out to better understand a species or inform the health, care and treatment of a species.

So attitudes to scientific work with animals may be context specific or may reflect a moral view that research with animals should never occur.

If you’re planning to use animals as subjects in your research, you will need to investigate what ethical requirements apply to you in your geographical region.

For example, in Australia, research studies using animals must meet strict requirements to be approved. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) must be scientifically valid, justified and is subject to ethical review (2016). Any research involving animals must follow the guidelines set down in the Australian Code for the Care and Use of Animals for Scientific Purposes.

Australian researchers must justify the use of animals to the Animal Ethics Committee (AEC) and obtain approval for their research before it begins. Additionally, researchers must ensure that the decision to use animals continues to be relevant and useful to humans. The Code also demands alternatives are used, wherever possible (NHMRC, 2016).

In addition to national requirements, your research may also be subject to conditions at a state, territory or province level. Again, we stress the importance of investigating what applies in your local region.

The 3 R’s

From the initial planning, to the ethical review process and right through to carrying out the research, the Australian researchers must consider the 3Rs of: replacement, reduction and refinement (NHMRC, 2016).

1. Replacement

Wherever possible, the use of animal subjects must be replaced with other methods.

2. Reduction

Where animals subjects are required, the number of animals used must be kept to the minimum.

3. Refinement

Researchers must refine techniques to reduce adverse impacts on animals used (NHMRC, 2016).

Your task

What governs or guides the use of animals in research in your geographical area? Conduct some research and use the comments section to share links to guiding documents you find. Also feel free to post your thoughts on the ethical use of animals in research.

References

BBC. (2014). Ethics Guide: Experimenting on animals

HMRC. (2016). Processes to ensure the ethical and humane use of animals in NHMRC-funded research. National Health and Medical Research Council.

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This video is from the free online course:

Why Ethics Matter: Ethical Research

Griffith University