17 / 06 / 2021
Why we're not very good at slogans: honesty in animal research discourse
By FRAME CEO, Celean Camp
As I’m writing this, the news cycle is dominated by discussions about truth and (dis)honesty in public discourse, and the dire consequences when credibility and trust are eroded by taking liberties with facts. Honesty is the foundation of any conversation we want to take us forward – just ask any mediator or relationship counsellor. But the trouble at the moment is that many of the problems we need to talk about are fundamentally complex and we have internalised a belief that people don’t want to or don’t have the time to engage with complexity. So we reduce our arguments down to one-liners, hashtags, and slogans on the side of a bus, creating memorable statements which by virtue of their reduction are now only somewhat true and often entirely misleading.
Take one of the one-liners often used in the field of replacing animal research: “90% of drugs that pass animal tests don’t work in humans” It is shocking and therefore has impact, is memorable, and certainly opens a conversation about the waste in preclinical studies. But it’s not entirely true and is arguably a bit misleading. What is more accurate to say is that around 90% (depending which year’s stats you pick on) of drugs found to be safe and effective in preclinical animal and non-animal tests do not make it to market. This can be because of commercial decisions made by the company about whether to go forward to clinical studies (changed priorities, a competitor gets there first, resource allocation requirements, etc), as well as whether those clinical studies raise concerns about the use of the drug for humans.
My question is, does it dilute the impact to more accurately quote the statistic? To my mind, no it does not. There is still incredible, demonstrable waste both of funding and animal lives in the drug development pipeline. Seeking ways to improve this should be a commercial and moral imperative. As the scientific knowledge base grows, there are serious questions being raised about the utility of animal models in predicting human outcomes (e.g. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2452302X1930316X#bib16) and we need to be having the conversation with scientists, funders and other stakeholders about how this information is incorporated into our future research priorities. The trouble with playing fast and loose with facts is that it tends to polarise the discussion. We have had decades of conflict-based rhetoric around animal research, and entrenched positions of attack and defense, them and us; much that is written today is still clearly from an ideological position of either pro or anti animal research (as demonstrated by the two references in the paragraph above).
But the world is not black and white, heroes and villains, it is entirely shades of grey (although how many, you can decide for yourself).
There have been great strides to increase openness around animal research (https://concordatopenness.org.uk/) and we know that the vast majority of scientists in this field are conscientious people wanting to ease human suffering and cure disease. In the main, they do not use animals lightly, and the work can often take a considerable toll.
We believe that as a society, investing our limited resources of time and funding and our considerable skill and innovation into advancing non animal methods will ultimately be more effective in finding the answers to the endemic lifestyle diseases that currently afflict so many.
We also believe that there are many factors around the culture and practice of research that could be changed now and would accelerate the development and uptake of these methods and reduce the numbers of animals used. For example, a requirement to publish the outcomes of all animal studies would help to ensure work is not repeated unnecessarily and raise the quality of meta-analyses; greater priority from funders given to non-animal methods would incentivise more researchers to develop and use these; and more encouragement for PhD students and post-doctoral researchers who wish to solve problems in novel ways (https://lockwoodfilm.com/test-subjects) would ensure that the number of researchers skilled in using new methods grows. We also understand that it is not possible to replace all animal experiments today, and that one-dimensional arguments belie the complexities of the science and the problems with which we are faced.
So generally you will find that at FRAME we are not very good at slogans and soundbites. We use a lot of words to ensure we convey our arguments accurately. We think people need to understand that this issue is complex, but that solutions will come from constructive, respectful dialogue. And that starts with honesty.