Back in May the U.S. House Committee
on Science held a hearing to examine how to communicate scientific ideas
to the public. As part of that hearing, neuroscientist Stuart Zola,
Ph.D., testified about his experiences after being targeted by animal
rights activists for experiments he conducted on primates designed to
find answers to questions about the way the brain handles memory.
The sort of claims animal rights
activists made about Zolas work are typical of those made against
all animal research. “Until my work became a focus of the activists,
I felt that my job was to clarify how the brain worked and
to carry out high quality research and to do the research in a humane
and ethical way,” Zola told the committee. “But the activists
were telling a different story. A local group of activists attempted to
discredit my research and the research of my colleagues that used animals,
and claimed that we were in animal-related research just for the
money and job security and that not only was basic research that
used animals useless, but that we were torturing animals,
and in all ways animal research was inhumane.”
Zola said he assumed the public
would have enough of a scientific background to see through the distortions,
but instead was surprised to find them accepting the animal rights claims
about his research.
Consider the common charge that
a certain experiment doesnt have immediate practical applications,
so therefore it is wasteful. As Zola made abundantly clear, however, this
is confusing the distinction between basic and applied research and arguing
that the former is unnecessary, which is simply not true. As Zola conceded,
his own research into the neurological structures of memory will have
little immediate practical benefit for patients,
Nevertheless, basic research is highly relevant to patient care and
the eventuality of developing effective interventions and treatments
for brain-associated memory problems. Knowledge generated by neuroscience
research has led to important advances in understanding of diseases
and disorders that affect the nervous system and in the development
of treatments that reduce suffering in humans and animals … Continued
progress in understanding how the brain works and further advances in
treating and curing disorders of the nervous system require investigations
of complex functions at all levels in living nervous systems.
Another common claim made by animal
rights activists is that animal experimentation is unnecessary because
cell/tissue cultures along with computer models can be used for the same
effect. While it is true that alternatives to animal testing do exist,
they are not appropriate for all avenues of research.
Consider computer models. Such
models designed to study some cognitive functions do exist, but there
are no computer models of the brain which would answer the questions about the way memory structures function. For that Zola and other neuroscientists
need to rely on animal experiments. Similarly, while
cell culture and tissue culture techniques can be informative for studying
the function of isolated components of a system, and can help identify
the potential toxicity or medical benefits of compounds in the early
stages of investigation … it is usually the case that we need to understand
function in the context of a whole, intact system, made up of interrelated
organs and organ systems, where they can be many different influences
on a particular function.
Studying the effects of a new drug
in a tissue or cell culture is certainly helpful, but at some point researchers
need to know how the drug will affect the entire animal — something which,
again, requires testing the drug in an animal.
The biggest surprise from Zolas
testimony is how isolated scientists engaged in basic research remain
from the general public. Reading Zola testify how he thought the public
would see through the animal rights distortions, the immediate question
is how widespread this naivetÃ© is among scientists. Dont they hear
about the polls where most Americans say they believe that humans and
dinosaurs co-existed at some point, or the relatively small numbers who
understand even the rudiments of chemistry or physics?
It is also alarming that Zola reported
he would visit legislators to discuss the role of animals in medical research
often got comments from them that, although they had many animal activists
visit them, I was the first scientists who had ever come to discuss
these issues with them … until scientists began to talk to legislators
directly, they were often as misinformed about science and the scientific
process and the benefits of animal research as the general public.
The University of California, San
Diego, where Zola works, created a speakers bureau to talk about
the research they do to local schools, businesses, clubs, etc. More universities
need to make a concerted effort to reach out to their communities and
educate the public about what they are doing and why it is important.
Testimony of Stuart M. Zola, Ph.D., US House Representatives Committee on Science,
May 14, 1998.