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Stifling Scientific Criticism of Animal Research Is a Desperate Maneuver

Open and honest discourse and the free exchange of views is the cornerstone of scientific enquiry. Without it, ideas stagnate, progress is delayed, and the status quo prevails -- not because it deserves to, but because alternate viewpoints have been stifled.

Open and honest discourse and the free exchange of views is the cornerstone of scientific enquiry. Without it, ideas stagnate, progress is delayed, and the status quo prevails -- not because it deserves to, but because alternate viewpoints have been stifled.

So it is quite astonishing that the Association of Medical Research Charities -- a body that purports to welcome, indeed champion, openness in the debate surrounding the use of live animals in research -- is denying its 133 members or any future members the freedom to express anything other than a party line regarding animal experimentation. Effective this month, if charities wish to remain in or join AMRC, they must publicly declare support for animal research, regardless of whether or not they themselves conduct, commission or condone such work.

To compel members to either support animal research or be expelled or excluded is effectively shutting down open discourse precisely at a time when more and more biomedical researchers and scientists around the world are voicing their misgivings about animal models of human disease, and the perceived gold-standard status of animals used in their millions for chemical and product safety testing.

Imposing an explicit and uncritical pro-use agenda on AMRC membership will almost certainly deter charities that eschew animal research for ethical or scientific reasons, and the association's membership will be the poorer for it. It will also discourage others from voicing any misgivings they may have about animal use, for fear of expulsion. This is tantamount to gagging the scientific community, holding to ransom not just AMRC membership, but all the associated benefits that come with it - the prestige, the political and corporate networking opportunities, and enhanced fundraising capabilities.

Humane Society International works alongside scientists in a range of bioscience fields from across the globe. Some hold the opinion that using biologically distinct animals as surrogates for human disease is a costly distraction from adopting and advancing twenty-first century, human-relevant research tools, while others offer a more guarded dissent or prefer to restrict their criticism of animal use to their area of expertise. Fair enough.

We are nonetheless united by the recognition that animal experimentation is not the best that science can achieve, that in some cases it is disastrously misleading, and that almost without exception replacing imperfect animal models with state-of-the-art non-animal tools that use human biology, instead of a mouse or a monkey, as their starting point, has enormous medical research and human health benefits.

But what so many of these experts also have in common is direct personal experience of the professional pressure to keep their mouths shut. Whether this is overt bullying in the workplace with bench scientists vocally opposed to animal use being ostracised and marginalised, or more subtle and insidious undermining of their research and career prospects via peer review and journal publication bias - too often the vocal and well-connected minority has succeeded in silencing the suggestion that animal research might be a broken paradigm.

Not only is it counter-productive scientifically to avoid potentially outdated views being exposed to scrutiny, it also artificially suppresses what is becoming a far more mainstream concern amongst bench scientists and toxicologist. The limitations of animal research have now been acknowledged by prominent thought leaders such as former US National Institutes of Health director Elias Zerhouni, who lamented: "We have moved away from studying human disease in humans. We all drank the Kool-Aid on that one, me included. The problem is that it hasn't worked, and it's time we stopped dancing around the problem...We need to refocus and adapt new methodologies for use in humans to understand disease biology in humans."

Lung on a chip. Credit: Wyss Institute

High-impact publications such as the British Medical Journal and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences are increasingly publishing papers questioning the validity of animal models. The Wyss Institute at Harvard University is one of the world's leading centres of biologically-inspired engineering, pushing the boundaries of innovation with its organs-on-a-chip technology. Such technology explicitly embraces the need to replace out-dated animal experiments. In fact, Wyss is transforming scientific enquiry precisely because it is motivated by a need to plug the knowledge gaps and course-correct a way out of the scientific cul-de-sacs left behind by an over-reliance on animals.

Only through open discourse --and having the courage and integrity to acknowledge evidence regarding the deficiencies of animal research and testing where it exists -- can science progress and improve. Sticking our heads in the sand and insisting that everyone else does likewise is a fool's game. We all want to see more advances and better treatments or cures for cancers, liver disease, multiple sclerosis or degenerative neurological disorders like Parkinson's or motor neuron disease. But refusing to admit that despite decades of animal-based research, precious few treatments have resulted that actually work in people, is part of what is holding back progress.

If we are to improve the quality of our human health research, it is in all of our interests that research charities should feel entirely free to openly discuss the fundamental problems with using animals, without the threat of negative consequences.

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