Public Expectations For Animal Research Are Far From The Reality
Most animal advocates draw a clear line against using animals in research, arguing that experimenting on animals for human benefit is both unethical and ineffective. That line is generally less clear for members of the general public, who often conditionally support the use of animal research because they believe that its benefits for human health outweigh its costs for animals. Yet, recent studies have shown that the translation rate of animal research findings to human health is only between 0% and 5%, indicating that the public may not be well informed about the effectiveness of animal research.
This study, published in ATLA: Alternatives to Lab Animals, seeks to further investigate people’s expectations of and support for animal research (AR), as well as how they contrast to the figures cited above. The authors surveyed three groups of people: the general public, medical students, and scientists. Based on responses to a questionnaire, results show the percentage of participants who “strongly agree,” “agree,” are “undecided,” “disagree,” or “strongly disagree” with 15 statements about AR methodologies, perceived benefits of AR to humans, and expectations for translation rates to humans.
Overall, participants from the general public had high expectations for AR methodologies. For example, 72% disagreed that it was acceptable to use a less humane method of euthanasia to reduce costs, 68% disagreed that it was acceptable to carry out an animal experiment if there were a non-animal alternative, and 75% were uncertain or disagreed that it was acceptable to continue using an animal model that had failed to translate to human findings.
The general public also had high expectations for AR benefiting and translating to humans. For example, 82% thought it was “sometimes true” and 86% thought it was “often true” that a treatment discovered through the use of AR leads to direct or indirect benefits for humans, and most were “uncertain” or “disagreed” that AR rarely produces benefits for humans. Additionally, more than 82% of respondents thought that findings should translate over 40% of the time and 57% thought findings should translate over 60% of the time. Finally, only 15% disagreed with a statement indicating that they would significantly reduce their support for AR if it accurately predicted effects of drugs in humans less than 20% of the time.
Medical student participants gave similar but slightly different responses to the general public. They were more likely to agree that it is acceptable to use a less humane method of euthanasia if it would improve experimental results, to continue using an animal model that had failed to translate findings to humans, and to continue using an animal model that involved assessing treatment effects on behavior of stressed animals. More medical students also disagreed that AR rarely produces benefits to humans, and 40% disagreed with the statement indicating that they would significantly reduce their support for AR if it accurately predicted effects of drugs in humans less than 20% of the time.
Finally, scientists who conduct AR were invited to take part in the study be email, but the response rate was so low that useful results could be reported. The authors state, “This is disappointing, in view of the fact that more-open discussion regarding the institution of AR is surely warranted.”
In their discussion, the authors state that “the general public and medical student expectations of the methodology and translation of AR are far higher than the empirical data show to have been achieved: there is a disconnect between these expectations and the empirical reality of AR. Of concern is the fact that the results imply that, if the general public were better informed, then they would likely withdraw their conditional support for AR, or at least seriously re-consider such support.” They further recommend that “either AR methodology needs to markedly improve, potentially resulting in markedly higher translation rates to humans, and thus maintaining informed support; or it should be accepted that AR is inherently unable to achieve markedly higher translation rates, and it should be seen as a failed biomedical research paradigm that lacks informed support.”
For advocates, the findings offer positive proof and detailed evidence that people have high standards for treatment of animals used in research and the results of that research—standards that are not even close to being met by the research community. Advocates should continue to expose the realities of animal research and attempt to bridge the gap between what people believe and what data show has been achieved.