Knowledge Gaps: Animal-Focused Research Ideas For Grad Students
The world of scholarship on animals, animal advocacy, and the myriad issues surrounding both, is ever-growing. Faunalytics’ Research Library has thousands of summaries of such scholarship available. However, even though we add 200+ studies to the Library each year, it’s just the tip of a much bigger iceberg. We curate our collection to focus on studies with the most potential usefulness for advocates, while hundreds of other studies are published each year.
It wasn’t always like this. For many years, the animal advocacy movement had a lot of grounding in theory and philosophy, but was not focused on empirical research. Tactics and strategies were employed with little idea of their effects — or effectiveness. Campaigns would come and go without proper impact evaluation. The energy and heart that characterized the early animal advocacy movement often did not translate into the systematic measurement of results.
Today, we have more scholarship on animal-related issues than ever — our Library is a testament to that. However, the field of animal- and advocacy-related research is still growing. Students entering into graduate programs often want to contribute, but don’t always know how, and we often get questions from nascent researchers who want to make their mark and make a positive impact.
Below, we offer some ideas to give your animal-related research a kickstart.
1. Solutions Within Reach: Norms Around Use Of Animals In Science
There are strong modern alternatives to the use of animals in medical and behavioral research — and this is even more true when it comes to needless dissections in high school science — yet norms of using them persist (e.g., see this). All the evidence exists, but what will it take to change these norms?
2. Remembering The Big Picture: The Sociology And Economics Of Change
It’s easier to think small: about individual behavior instead of group behavior, one issue instead of many interconnected issues, or one region versus many. But as animal advocates and as researchers, we need to look to the future, and the future is big-picture.
Some questions along this line include: How does progress on an animal issue in one country or region affect advocacy on that same issue in another region? What are the harmful societal or environmental consequences of investing in animal agriculture in developing nations? What are the economic benefits politicians could expect to see from greater investment in plant-based agriculture and manufacturing? How does progress on an issue like animals used in science (see above!) impact efforts for other animal issues?
These questions can feel intimidating to a grad student, but finding a supervisor or grad student collaborator from another discipline/department may help you bridge some of the difficulty and make a big impact with your research.
3. Cultures Of Change: How Regional Histories And Experiences Differentially Shape Behavioral And Societal Change
Change for animals is happening around the world, and no two regions are quite the same. Yet a lot of research to date has focused on the Western world, especially the U.S. and United Kingdom. As a grad student early in your research career, you may have the option of making choices about your region of study that can affect your research program over the long term.
If you’re from the West yourself, it’s crucial not to practice parachute science — imposing Eurocentric biases on regions with their own laws, systems, history, religion, and culture — or to frame all your work in terms of comparison to Western norms. But as a grad student, you can start from the ground up learning the psychology, sociology, or economics of a region from their own viewpoint by focusing on that literature and collaborating with scholars from the region if you yourself aren’t.
Initial questions to tackle might be foundational, like public attitudes toward animal use or how the government funds and promotes animal agriculture. Subsequent questions will depend on the region and will emerge over time as you become familiar with the foundations.
4. Beyond The Basics: Extending What We Know About Plant-Based And Cultivated Meat
There’s already lots of research about interest in cultivated meat, barriers to plant-based alternative consumption, and different messaging approaches around these issues, so we’d love to see more work on questions that go beyond those basics and into more of the downstream effects of increased consumption: which plant-based offerings are being used as substitutes versus complements for animal products and why? How can plant-based and cultivated foods be framed as beneficial in a political context to increase high-level support?
Furthermore, there are other aspects that remain underexplored. Are there any “danger zones” to avoid with the development of these products, such as misinformation campaigns like with soy and GMO foods, or whether making “exotic” or even endangered cultivated meats available would reduce or increase the demand for illegal trade?
5. Beliefs Versus facts: Asking Animals What They Prefer
Humans have a lot of beliefs about what other animals think, feel, and want — and are often wildly off-base. Advocates try to correct those misconceptions with facts like “chickens are caring, emotional creatures” and “pigs are as smart as dogs,” but it can be an uphill battle.
Thanks to the research team at Farm Sanctuary, researchers now have a new opportunity to demonstrate these truths in an ethical and impactful way. In partnership with Farm Sanctuary researchers, you may be able to work with their animal residents to answer questions like: Do chickens actively choose conditions that aren’t used in industrial agriculture over ones that are? How do cows’ social networks form and change? Will sheep choose enrichment activities to get food over simply receiving it without any work involved? Contrasting these behaviors against humans’ beliefs about these animals could be a powerful way of demonstrating how flawed perceptions of industrial animal agriculture really are.
6. Humane Education Research
Research suggests that kids are set up to be more empathic toward animals, but that they’re trained out of it as they get older. Anecdotally, we have reason to believe that humane education can meaningfully shape kids’ attitudes toward animals — possibly in a way that could have a bigger impact on society if we could understand it well enough to hone in on the best methods. Current literature is limited by a lack of control groups, and by a range of difficulties in studying kids. It is especially challenging to study kids over a long time period.
Academics are well-positioned to do longer-term research, especially in a developmental psych lab. Perhaps one of them could be you!
7. True Cost Analysis
What are the true costs of various animal products when we take externalities like cheap, exploited labor into account? Is it possible to create a calculation that includes the days/years of suffering by human laborers (similarly to how we do with animals)? Furthermore, what is the potential benefit of using these types of cost analyses in persuasive campaigns that highlight the overlap between animal and social justice issues?
8. Systematic Legal Review Of Humanewashing & Greenwashing
Advocates have long known that the animal agriculture industry engages in humanewashing and greenwashing to help make its products and practices seem more animal- and environmentally-friendly than they really are. What are the most common methods they use to do so, and are there ways advocates and laypeople could respond to such techniques using a legal framework?
Since these specific techniques may be regulated by federal or regional laws, there are many opportunities for scholars to study these mechanics in their own regions, review certifications and claims across a wide range of products, and compare against what we know about welfare standards for those animals.
9. Low-Hanging Fruit: Identifying Winnable Issues And Helping Them Hit The Tipping Point
The struggle for animal liberation often gets framed in terms of creating a “vegan world” — and while that may be a noble goal, it may be many lifetimes away. In the meantime, there are a range of more “winnable” issues that scholars can study and help push beyond a tipping point. Greyhound racing is one such issue, but others abound: the use of animals in circuses is an older issue that has faced lots of challenges and seems increasingly on its way out, and the factory farming of octopuses is a brand new issue that could be advocated against strongly now so that it doesn’t have the chance to grow or spread.
These are just some of the potential areas where you could make a big difference with a graduate research project. There are many, many other options, limited only by your imagination and willingness to dig into your area of interest. If you’re stuck for ideas, do some reading about your topic outside your discipline. A social psychologist reading a political science paper might learn all kinds of things that inspire new ideas but are 101 level for the political scientist, and the same is true in reverse. If we want to help animals, we need to get away from disciplinary snobbery and siloing.
And remember: you are not alone. You are part of a growing community of scholars, animal advocates, and NGO members who are serious about the next era of the animal protection movement: an era of creative, data-driven advocacy and impact-oriented work. You can stop by Faunalytics’ Office Hours if you have research questions or need help finding data, and our list of external resources and datasets can help kickstart your search for projects.