A new initiative to further help us talk about animal experiments

by Maria Eichel

September 16, 2017

After starting my PhD, I went to a friend’s place with a lot of new people. And, of course, these things always start with “Hi, and what are you doing”. From then on, the same scenario takes place every time I say “I am doing my PhD in Neuroscience”. After a big “wow” the conversation gradually turns into me killing animals. Most times the first questions are: “So you torture monkeys? Ah, ok mice – but where is the difference actually? Did you ever have pets? How can you cope with killing animals then? Nowadays, shouldn’t you be able to use alternative methods?”

Often, I feel overpowered by this emotional point of view.  As soon as I would start explaining what I do, why I need mice for my experiments and why I am of the opinion, people either lose interest or start heavily debating animal ethics. This has happened on several occasions, and at one point, I noticed that not only are others not understanding my point-of-view but also I am having difficulties discussing this essential topic.

Many times I wish for numbers and statistics in order to tell them that it is not so bad. For example, in Germany only 0.26% of all animals killed are in research whereas 99.15% are in the food industry. The same holds true for when people think we all work with primates when primates only make up 0.1% of all animal models used for research (data from the Versuchstierzahlen 2014-15 from the BMEL).

Sometimes, I begin explaining the topic using emotional and understandable arguments, such as, how medical treatments or drug development may help treat loved. But what about basic science research? How about all the rules and guidelines we have in the EU to protect animals from misuse and torture? How about my feelings when I face a long bureaucratic process before actually starting my research, and those long hours I spent on these things instead of doing what I love – solving puzzles in the lab and creating knowledge. The last point especially, I often do not dare to tell others outside of my field. I fear this will be misunderstood and people might think I do not care about the animals’ protection, but rather about a fast experimental outcome. In the end, I am afraid that people would generalize the problem, thinking that scientists do not care about animal experiments as much as we actually do.

The good news? There are not only activists against animal research, but also alliances aiming to promote public awareness by providing reliable information to the public and motivating researchers to engage in this debate, such as, Pro-Test Deutschland e.V. and Tierversuche verstehen (TVV). For this article, the Offspring sat down and interviewed Roman Stilling of TVV about the group and its aims. For information about other advocacy groups, namely Pro-Test Deutschland, you can refer to an article written by Renee Hartig, one of the Offspring members and co-founder of the grass-roots organization (https://www.phdnet.mpg.de/11917/Offspring_No9.pdf).

Roman Stilling works for Tierversuche verstehen, which translates to Understanding animal experiments and is an advocacy group put forth by the Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany. He spoke to the Offspring about the aims of this initiative and how they try to publicly raise awareness about animal experiments. Launched in 2016, TVV provides reliable, transparent, and up-to-date information about animal experiments and why they are important. Also availability and limitations of alternative methods, such as, non-invasive methods or tissue engineering are explained by experts. The platform may not only be used by laypeople, journalists, and politicians but also scientists, teachers, technicians, animal caretakers and students as a source of information. In the long run, this will hopefully provide a basis for open and transparent discussions, increasing the acceptance of animal experiments within our society under the given circumstances. Most importantly, Roman points out that we as scientists need to communicate on- and off-line as well as use our fascination with science when it comes to talking about our methods. We are the experts in the field and are the most suitable people to spread the word on why animal research is important. For scientists at all stages, it is necessary to engage in this debate and shape the future of how things are communicated.

I, myself, decided to engage in this topic, have an open ear for people who want to discuss it with me, and not become too heated but rather to be honest, reliable, and fact-based. I am an expert in my field, and with a bit of thinking ahead, I will be able to communicate the topics that are close to my heart.

Find the full interview with Roman Stilling from Tierversuche verstehen below.

Website: https://www.tierversuche-verstehen.de/

  1. Tell us something about Tierversuche verstehen. How and when did it form? Who is collaborating with you? And who is working for Tierversuche verstehen?

In September 2016, the “Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany” (http://www.mpg.de/alliance) launched an initiative to offer transparent and reliable information about all aspects of animals used in research in a fact-based manner. It is called “Tierversuche verstehen” (translates to “understanding animal experiments”) and its flagship part is the web platform www.tierversuche-verstehen.de. A steering committee consisting of scientists and communications professionals from each of the organisations within the Alliance is responsible for the activities of this initiative.

  1. What is your general plan and main focus? Do you have a visionary idea and/or aim?

The initiative aims to provide up-to-date, first-hand, reliable information on why animals are used in research and why such research is crucial to medical progress. The vision of “Tierversuche verstehen” at this stage is to become the number one resource for information regarding use of animals in research. However, it is extremely important to point out that the medium- to long-term goal is that every institution that uses animals for research has openly provided information on their research to the public. Responsible research goes together with transparency and openness. Together, this will hopefully contribute to a more evidence-based public discussion on whether our society accepts using animals in their benefit. We know from other European countries and the USA that a more rational debate is possible.

  1. How do you aim to inform about animal research in general? And more specifically, where does your main focus lie regarding public awareness, education and how to involve/teach scientists?

We know that people want to know what is going on in laboratories that are publicly funded. And we know that people take an increasing interest in what is happening to animals in all areas of research that we use in modern societies. However, in the past science did not do a very good job explaining its methods and ethics, or how animals are treated and how much science relies on the animals that researchers are using. There needs to be a general rethinking of the approach science communicates with the public about controversial issues. Importantly, we also know that people need to perceive this communication as trustworthy, competent, and authentic. Thus, researchers cannot delegate this task and are themselves needed to talk about their research - and not spare the methods.

“Tierversuche verstehen” is meant for the public, but of course “the public” is just a summary of multiple groups with different interests and needs. Therefore, the information that we provide is tailored towards different target audiences, including schools, journalists, doctors, and politicians.

  1. Alternative methods which replace animal experiments are also a big topic nowadays. Do you also plan to engage in this topic?

If an alternative method exists to answer a certain scientific question, an experiment causing harm to an animal should not be done. This needs to be guaranteed by an extensive process of approval, which every new experiment needs to go through before it can start. Of course, we highlight this process, and extensively, all kinds of methods - both existing and in development. But, we always provide information about both the opportunities and limitations of current and future methods. Science has proven repeatedly that new methods are picked up quickly if they are superior to the current status quo. Nobody I know likes causing harm to animals he or she uses in experiments, and keeping animals for research is expensive and needs a lot of resources. New methods are developed by the community all the time, and every new method - given it achieves the same level of insight - is welcomed.

  1. How can scientists join and/or help out?

As said above, it is the scientists themselves that need to communicate. Engaging with the public needs to happen both on- and off-line. We therefore offer an expert network that gathers scientists from all areas to provide their specific expertise, which we rely on for news stories, background research or answering questions that we receive from interested readers. Also, we need scientists to be available for local activities, such as forum discussions or open house days. Finally, we need researchers to push for more openness at their own institution - a process that involves discussions and coordination with colleagues,  management, and PR offices.

  1. Would you have a key message for young scientists on how to engage in the debate and behave when addressed with criticism?

The most important motivation for most scientists is fascination. As a young scientist you are well-prepared to talk about your research and highlight how important it is (e.g. to secure funding or pitch a project to your supervisor). This fascination needs to be visible also when it comes to the methods you use. It is important to be clear about the impact you have when you engage in public discussion both on- and off-line. Only you as scientists have the first-hand information that laypeople need to make up their minds and come to an opinion about a particular field of research or methods (i.e. using animals). There are many ways to become a communicator of science, locally or online. In addition, it is crucial to make sure that you have nothing to hide when it comes to your science: be the best you can be, adhere to good scientific practice and all legal requirements. Finally, there are many ways to contribute to the debate, e.g. by signing the Basel Declaration (http://www.basel-declaration.org/), join the Pro-Test movement (http://www.pro-test-deutschland.de/en/) and stay on top of the debate (e.g. follow @TVVde on Twitter).