Saturday, August 9, 2008

Support the People Who Do Animal Research

There's been some discussion on ScienceBlogs about the recent firebombings of the homes of two UC Santa Cruz researchers (For instance: Terra Sigillata, DrugMonkey, Adventures in Ethics and Science, Respectful Insolence, Discovering Biology in a Digital World, and Built on Facts). And probably elsewhere in the blogosphere that I haven't made it to, yet. But I feel compelled to add my two cents, now. I mean, people were almost killed! For doing science that somebody else didn't like. Not acceptable.

I don't work with animals. But I have done so in the past, and I can honestly say that it is not like what you see in the movies. There is training, protocols to be evaluated, logs, etc. A researcher doesn't just have cages and tanks with random animals hanging around for them to tinker with for no good reason than a whim. Everything is planned, regulated and overseen. See DrugMonkey's post for hard fact and links.

What motivated DM's post, however, was the complaint that researchers seem to be reluctant to talk about all this when approached by students. I can definitely put myself in that place, and I don't think it's wrong to expect the questioner to be sensitive about this, given the climate.

Here's what I see as a similar situation - female scientists get asked all the time about their marital/family status. Many choose to be evasive or flat out refuse to answer because of the overwhelmingly chilly climate in many fields. They are simply concerned that they will not be taken seriously if they let on that they have children or may want to have children someday. Or even think children are not gross and annoying. One response to that behavior is to get mad at the women who do this. Because they should not be so paranoid. They should realize that this particular person really meant no harm and could actually benefit from their candor. It's so annoying that they are shutting down discourse about a very important issue. They really should stand up and be who they are instead of caving to the dysfunctional environment. Another response is to come to grips with the sadness of the situation, and then work to change things so that women will feel more at ease about speaking openly about their families.

I think we really need to take the second approach here. We need to acknowledge that there is a major problem - public perception of animal research is really messed up and making it hard for scientists who work with animals to feel comfortable talking about their work. Does that mean the inquiring fresh-faced student is wrong? No. But it affects how the professor will answer. Because professors are people, too.

I, myself, have always been open to discussion about both my family and any animal research I have done. I lack the discretion gene. But I know that those who have one or even two functioning copies might not be as forthcoming, and though I might encourage them to open up, I can really understand why they might not. Women are telling stories about their careers being wrecked in all sorts of ways because they let the wrong person know they had a maternal side. And now scientists are having their homes fire-bombed because they let the wrong person know that their research involves animals.

I must admit that there is one conversation that I am looking back on and seeing in another light just now. Way back when I did work with animals for one summer, I had lunch with a couple of friends as well as the brother of one friend and his girlfriend. The brother was all right, but the girlfriend - she just drove me crazy! She was the epitome of hairy-fairy, and new-agey nonsense was gushing from every pore. And she just assumed that everyone else was on the same page. She blabbed for about half an hour about the gerbil or hamster she and the brother had as a pet. Now I have no problem with pets. I have several pets myself. But I really hate it when people either talk about their pets as if they were human children or do not care for their pets in the way that would be appropriate for the species it belongs to. She did both, simultaneously. She went into great detail about how she felt that it is not fair to keep the little rodent in a cage, so she let it run free in their apartment. Then she divulged that sometimes, when this small mammal disappeared into the nooks and crannies of their (food cabinets, underwear drawers - you fill in the blank) they couldn't cook because she was worried that her pet might be hiding in the oven. A problem which would easily be solved if she would just keep the thing in a damn cage!

I tried to get her to change topic, no go. Nothing could be as interesting as her precious little whatever-its-name-was. So I decided to shut her up. The next time there was a lull in her yammering, I announced to the room that I had gotten a really sweet summer lab placement. When my friends predictably asked what I'd be working on, I told them I'd most likely be working on a project using mice that required sacrifice by decapitation and immediate dissection of the brain. It worked. Not another word about the rodent she scheduled her cooking around.

At the time, I thought of it as a slightly nasty way of reminding someone that other people see the world in a different light. Now, though, I don't think I'd do the same thing again. And not because I'm afraid that she might turn out to be some Animal Liberation Front nut-job who might fire-bomb my home. But because I did not demonstrate to her my real feelings about working with animals. Instead, I acted like the smug, insensitive jerk-off that many people think of as the "type" to work with animals. In reality, I wasn't sure I wanted to do that project, and in the end I asked to be assigned to a different project that only required sacrifice if something went wrong (in which case the animal would die anyway, but only after suffering, so it would be for the best). I was really careful and did my best to ensure that nothing went wrong. I made that choice because I was concerned that my inexperience and nervousness would prevent me from doing the deed cleanly and without extra suffering or waste. Not because I didn't think the work was worth doing (it absolutely was).

So, while I agree with Sandra Porter's call for more scientists to speak out about the importance of animal research, let's give the people on the front lines a break if they find it difficult to open up. If you have questions, don't give up because the first person you asked was a little skittish. If you have made up your mind to support the people who do animal research, consider joining a group like Speaking of Research, or just talking truthfully with your friends and acquaintances. Don't be an asshat like I was. The only real solution here is to try to improve public perceptions of animal research.

And, hey, law enforcement types - put those thugs in jail!


Anonymous said...

or, hey, buy a copy of THE ANIMAL RESEARCH WAR, read it, then donate to a school library so the kids have something OTHER than that PeTA crap!

acmegirl said...

Great suggestion. For anyone who's interested, Sandra Porter has a review of "The Animal Research War" up here.

Tom said...

It's crucial that scientists and animal technicians speak out about the realities of their work. The public need to realise the close link between animals and medicines, and the stringent animal welfare considerations that exist within biomedical facilities.

Tom H

ScientistMother said...

I gave you an award

drdrA said...

Not a meme... promise.