Animal Research Makes Me Feel Bad

This week Imperial College London came under heat for inadequate treatment of research animals. Facilities were understaffed and poorly supervised, while caretakers received “patchy training.” The university has held a press conference and promised to correct the wrongs.

While I know animal research provides a massive amount of scientific insight that can be gained no other way (that we know of), I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of subjecting animals to research: growing tumors on their backs, injecting them with diseases, keeping them isolated in a sterilized cage for their entire life.

The topic fits well with another piece of recent news: the Nonhuman Rights Project has filed a lawsuit claiming chimpanzees should have the same basic rights as humans. They’re focusing specifically on a chimp in New York named Tommy who “is being held captive in a cage in a shed at a used-trailer lot.” Right now chimps are classified as property and the owners have a right to keep him confined in a cage. They’re asking the court to assign personhood to Tommy so that he can be removed from that environment and placed in a sanctuary.

This court case is not so cut and dry (the owners claim they rescued Tommy from even worse conditions and have been trying to place him, without luck, in a sanctuary), but that’s not what I want to focus on. I’ve been reading books on animal cognizance and thinking a lot about the topic lately and it’s my opinion (though it’s shared by many others) that animals have emotional lives. Elephants mourn their dead, dogs get anxious when their masters leave, and I once had a cat that was perpetually pissed until it found a best friend.

Now, I’m not saying their emotions mimic human emotion, or that they’re as strong (but I’m not saying they’re aren’t as strong either), or that they have a way to classify those emotions and rationally act on them (I don’t believe that at all). I’m saying animals can feel sad and worried and scared.

I feel animal research can bring negative emotions to the test animals and that makes me uncomfortable. Even in laboratories where the animals are well cared for, they still undergo human handling, confinement in an unnatural habitat, and testing (sometimes not-so-nice testing). But as I said before, I’m conflicted because I know the human benefits of animal testing. Maybe better computer models would take some of the burden off live animals. Hopefully, all those biologists quitting wet labs for so called “dry labs” (i.e. computers) will fix this problem and animal testing will phase out. Until then, I’ll feel bad about it.

Does Government-forced Open-access Help Science?

As scientists along with government officials in the House and Senate work to pass bills that force government-funded research to be freely accessible, one question pops to mind: Will peer review–the principal standard in scientific research–work with open-access?

With current subscription based journals, the publication process involves an editor, who is paid, a number of reviewers, who are not paid, and a boat-load of people formatting, producing and distributing the content–all paid. With open-access format, how do publications get reviewed or formatted or distributed? At the very least someone needs to coordinate reviewers maintain a website.

Will the government finance current publishers or will government-funded research go strictly in government-funded journals? Since most research is funded by government grants–judging from the funding sources listed at the end of academic papers–the later would force many publishers out of business. The specificity of smaller journals would be lost, and all research may get lumped together–though I suppose they’d separate fields like physics and psychology. Publishers, of course, are calling the open-access bills “unnecessary and a waste of federal resources.”

And who would keep track of citations? Right now, there is an intricate bookkeeping system keeping track of citations for each author–for a fun dick-measuring game of who has the most citations–and an overall “impact factor” of the journal–another game to see which journal is most cited. Though I call these games, keeping track of citations is important. It (kind of) shows which scientists and journals publish meaningful work.

While I like the idea of open-access–in a romantic sense–I’m not sure it is compatible with the current structure of scientific publication. If these bills pass, a dramatic overhaul of the entire system will have to occur. If–or when–that happens, we must preserve the peer review process even if all else is lost.