Why I refuse to do animal testing in my science career — and why it hasn't hurt me

Scientists must grapple with the powerful tension between our curiosity, our duty and rapidly shifting ethics

Published July 7, 2018 2:00PM (EDT)

 (Getty/Carl de Souza)
(Getty/Carl de Souza)

This article originally appeared on Massive.

I learned the story of Frankenstein in bits and pieces, mostly from the 1990s TV show "Wishbone" and the Mel Brooks comedy "Young Frankenstein." Before I read the original text, I empathized much more with Frankenstein’s “monster” than with the scientist. I didn’t like being reminded that humans sometimes create life without considering the responsibilities of caring for that life, and are sometimes cruel to each other just for looking different.

Even with such unappealing role models, I was still in love with scientific research and the way it fed my curiosity. But although I derived immense satisfaction from meticulous labwork, I couldn’t help feeling discomfort every time I cut into living tissue. I was told that this kind of empathy is admirable, but inappropriate for a scientist. But I couldn’t buy it – how could a seeker of knowledge and understanding ignore empathy?

By the time I finished my undergraduate degree in brain and cognitive sciences, I was jaded about academia and felt mentally, psychologically, and physically burnt out. I dove into collaborative and emotionally expressive artistic projects to rediscover the things that made me happy, a rehab program that took several years. Towards the end of that time I discovered cuttlefish and the incredible abilities of cephalopods, including octopus and squid, while putting together a presentation on biomimicry at the Boston Museum of Science.

I was immediately fascinated by cephalopod camouflage: unlike the slow or passive camouflage used by other visually deceptive animals, the color, texture, and reflectance of a cephalopod’s skin is rapidly and actively controlled by its nervous system. I decided this topic might be worth a return to academia, and began looking for a way to study neuroscience with cuttlefish. The aftertaste of my undergrad trauma lingered, however, and I was determined to do a PhD firmly on my terms, with an advisor and a lab group that wouldn’t ask me to compromise my principles. At the time, I didn’t know exactly what “my terms” were, other than to prioritize respect for all living creatures while doing science, and to be someplace abroad where I could increase my awareness of the cultural biases I developed from growing up in the United States. In the end, I found my scientific family in a series of serendipitous events.

When I went to the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, Portugal, to interview for their PhD program, I was hosted by a current student named Gonçalo Lopes. Though we were assigned to each other completely randomly, I quickly developed a profound scientific and personal connection with Goncalo, who also described with great enthusiasm the research philosophy of one of his co-advisors, Adam Kampff. Later during the interview week, the faculty each presented their research interests as a way of introducing themselves. I felt an immediate resonance with Adam’s passionate dedication to teaching and his willingness to embrace unconventional methods and ideas. I decided pretty much then and there that I would do my PhD with these two newfound kindred spirits, or not at all.

While I was initially crushed by Adam’s declaration that he didn’t plan to take on any more students for another year, serendipity struck once again. The musical that I had spent the previous year co-writing got funding to become a full production on the same day that I received my offer to join the Champalimaud Neuroscience Program. Adam encouraged me to defer my acceptance for a year to work on the musical, then come to Lisbon to do “awesome science” together. I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d tried.

From the very beginning, Adam was utterly unfazed by my determination to study cuttlefish and to do neuroscience non-invasively. He instead likes to remind me that personal values are great, but in the end, completely arbitrary, so he feels no reason to prevent someone from fully exploring the practical application of their principles.

It was quite the double-edged sword to be given so much freedom over my own education and research. Outside of our lab group, many of my other teachers, collaborators, and peers initially expressed concern that I “won’t be able to compete on the same playing field as other neuroscientists” by taking such an unconventional stance towards invasive research procedures. But as my PhD progressed, I heard these concerns less and less, in large part because of two growing trends in neuroscience: the 3Rs principles, and open science.

The 3Rs principles refer to Replacement, Reduction, and Refinement, guidelines for the more ethical and humane use of animals in research first described by British scientists William M. S. Russell and Rex L. Burch in their 1959 book "The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique." They argued that while the ideal experiment would require no animal at all in any stage (“absolute replacement”), practically speaking, experiments designed to expose research animals to no distress while also reducing the number of animals involved (“relative replacement + reduction”) are important steps that indicate progress towards that ideal. According to Russell and Burch, taking these very important steps requires a careful consideration of one’s research strategy and a willingness to improvise new strategies to best fit the scientific question at hand: “It is at this point that refinement starts, and its object is simply to reduce to an absolute minimum the amount of distress imposed on those animals that are still used.”

Reading this book in my fourth year as a PhD student, I couldn’t help but wonder indignantly, “Why isn’t this book required reading during every life science PhD student’s first-year coursework?” The reason is subtle: instead of treating the “three Rs” as the necessary starting point for any experiment involving animal use, life science fields have been treating these principles as “alternatives.” This is slowly changing, thanks to the hard work of countless scientists and policy-makers, resulting in legislation such as the UK’s Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (ASPA) and initiatives such as the National Centre for the Replacement Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), which launched in 2004.

Another recent trend in neuroscience is open science, or the concept of making scientific research, data, and dissemination as accessible as possible to both amateurs and professionals. One could argue that this idea made its first meaningful appearance on the scientific stage in the 17th century, when the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society became the first academic journal devoted to science.

However, in the 21st century, open science means something more than improved communication between professional scientists. It has become a movement that seeks to identify and address barriers to the broad dissemination of scientific data, focusing on five main areas: increasing the availability of scientific tools and methods, establishing alternative methods of measuring scientific impact, increasing access for the general public to both the scientific process and scientific results, enabling the universal right of access to knowledge, and increasing collaboration throughout the research process.

These two movements – the 3Rs and open science – have been hugely validating of my stance on invasive methods. As the laws governing the use of animals in research adapt to reflect more progressive understandings of non-human life, many scientists find themselves faced with additional paperwork to justify their research, or with the necessity of changing their research questions and methods entirely. By contrast, I’ve always had very minimal paperwork to complete, leaving me with more time to dedicate to research instead of administrivia.

Additionally, as the open science movement gains more sway in the scientific research community, many researchers feel overwhelmed by the task of sharing the full truth of their research methods and motivations to a general public who vary wildly in their opinions regarding animal research. Again, my determination to use only non-invasive methods makes applying open science principles to my research documentation and dissemination super straightforward.

Even when it isn’t so straightforward – and actually, especially when it isn’t so straightforward – researchers must grapple with the tension between our curiosity and our duty. We scientists are the part of society entrusted with a great deal of resources and freedom – something that has been so since Mary Shelley described this truth in Frankenstein – in the hopes that our efforts will improve our understanding of the universe. Taking on this trust isn’t a trivial responsibility; sometimes we must make difficult decisions, and sometimes we get those difficult decisions wrong. But then we have to face the consequences and keep pushing towards our ultimate goal.

I think I’m now in a much better position to empathize with Frankenstein, the human, over his creation, the “monster.” The human, like me, was hungry for intellectual challenge, competent and hard-working, but he was unable to face the consequences of his curiosity. I’m still disappointed by his cowardice, but now I’ve also experienced how difficult it can be to live up to your own ideals, even when you haven’t created a murderous monster. The suffering of both Frankenstein and his creation was only compounded when Frankenstein tried to run away from the responsibilities that implicitly came with his scientific privileges. How might the story have gone if Frankenstein had tried to get to know his unconventional child?

Similarly, what consequences must we now face given our history of scientific discovery? As we move forward, how can we empathize with our animal collaborators instead of assuming they are incapable of having human-like mental experiences? We’ve been thinking and talking about humane research for decades, but in practice, our experimental methods still do not reflect the rigorous philosophical spadework that so many people have done. In order to truly apply the lessons of our past mistakes to our future research, we must follow through on the task of critically re-examining and updating our day-to-day activities as scientists.

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By Danbee Kim

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