If You Poison Us, Do We Not Die?

In the previous post, I began to speak about the recently published ‘non-technical summaries’ (NTS): accounts of the animal research projects proposed and granted in 2016. These texts, 530 of them in their 31 research categories amounting to a thousand or more pages of reading, are instructive, painful, and boring, an unusual combination, and I quickly steered off and spoke instead about the sorcerer Merlin as re-imagined by two twentieth-century authors, a much more rewarding subject all round. However, the NTS are such a crucial feature of the thinking and practice of EU law since the Directive of 2010 (‘on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes’, which still, for a time, governs UK law) that I feel obliged to make a second attempt at them.

As designed (there is a standard form which sets the various questions to be answered), these NTS are intended to satisfy three fundamental aims of the 2010 Directive: to make as much information as possible available to the public about what happens to animals in laboratories, and why; to have all research projects expressly subjected to cost/benefit assessment; and to make sure that every proper effort has been made to minimize the use of animals and the pain which they suffer (the 3Rs, in fact: replacement, reduction, refinement).

So on come these great annual pageants of proposed (and accepted) research, with their retinues of animals (mostly mice and rats, but also dogs, monkeys, ferrets, ducks, turkeys, sheep, pigs, birds, rabbits, fishes, and others), their promises (the hoped-for benefits section), and acknowledgements of harm (the expected costs to animals section), and their obeisances to the 3Rs. And on they pass into the future for their (mostly) 5-year labours. All across Europe they happen. They’re impressive as a huge bureaucratic exercise in ethics, or propitiation of ethics. They’re exhausting, boring (as I said), unhappy. They show no sign of diminution. I don’t know who else is watching, but I am anyway, and here are a few of the things which I notice about this year’s NTS for the U.K..

Each of the NTS is what rhetoricians call an apologia: a speech justifying something. Although their writers are meant to be factual about what’s proposed and expected, and no doubt are factual as to numbers, species, and procedures (in so far as these are specified), they can’t be supposed impartial. Accordingly, many of the less definite claims made in the summaries have no reliable meaning: “optimal experimental designs”, “careful monitoring”, “best possible welfare”, such phrases are only informative if used by dis-interested parties. It’s slightly suprising, in fact, to find scientists, trained in the habit of exact measurement, using them at all. I suppose that they have in mind suspicious non-technical readers and wish to reassure them, but in doing so they tend instead to cast doubt on other matters which ought to have definite meanings.

Of these, the suffering caused to animals (officially classified ‘sub-threshold’, ‘mild’, ‘moderate’, and ‘severe’) is the most important. Yet, sensing the apologist, we’re bound to wonder, for instance, about a project which proposes to test a great range of pharmaceutical, agrichemical, and other products on a positive menagerie of animals – hamsters, dogs, pigs, goats, monkeys (500 of these) – but which promises “little or no adverse effects”. Perhaps it’s right; on the other hand, perhaps some at least of these animals will re-appear anonymously in the ‘moderate’ or ‘severe’ categories of the annual statistics years later.

Testing of that sort mostly appears in the category ‘Regulatory Purposes’, which contains a high proportion of the more unpleasant proposals. Here, the cost/benefit assessment – never in fact much more than a juxtaposition of proposed good to humans and harm to animals, without further adjudication, but then what adjudication could there sincerely be? – is simplified by reference to legal requirements, some of them presumably part of Europe’s huge REACH project of chemical testing: these things have to be done, so don’t blame us.  The applicants, un-named of course, must be mainly contract testing organisations, such as Huntingdon Life Sciences (now part of the absurdly named Envigo company: “helps you secure the potential of life-enhancing research”). Such organisations necessarily have rolling programmes of work, routinely renewed.

There’s a foul history behind all this. The notorious LD50 test, classifying toxicity according to the dose required to kill 50% of a given group of animals, was introduced ninety years ago in a paper for Proceedings of the Royal Society (Biological Sciences section) titled ‘The Error of Determination of Toxicity’ and written by J.W.Trevan of the Wellcome Laboratories. Trevan wanted to establish a standard method for batch-testing therapeutic drugs, and in particular to show by statistical analysis how many animals should be used to produce reliable enough results (about 60 per batch, he seems to have concluded). But his method has been used to estimate, with a numerical precision which is both unnecessary and misleading, the toxicity of almost every ingestible or injectable substance open to misuse or accident. Published tables can be found which provide LD50 measures (ratio of substance to body-weight) for anything from arsenic to water. A terrible record of suffering is implied in them.

Fortunately the ‘classic’ LD50 test by mouth has been discontinued in many parts of the world, including Europe and the U.S.A. More accurate methods, not so profligate with life (but profligate all the same), are now being specified in the NTS. I don’t suppose that the writers of these summaries are finer humans than Dr Trevan was. That they accept it as an important aim to poison as few animals as possible, whereas he seems to have attached no explicit life-value at all to the animals caught up in his graphs and charts, shows what progress in enlightenment, or at least in rules, has been made. The NTS, for all their faults, are part of this progress. Even those research scientists who still think that animal lives don’t amount to much in comparison with human ones (we know there are such scientists) have to write these summaries as if they do. And if this means that they’re writing in much the same spirit as schoolchildren write out lines set as punishment – well, teachers think it works, and I expect it does.

But it remains a horrible scene. Here’s a prognosis of needs for a project which will test drugs, food and drink additives, and “other substances administered to Man” (the phrase makes humanity sound like one great baby, which in many respects we still are): “Over a five year period, it is expected that the following number of animals will be used on this project: 30,000 rats, 30,000 mice, 3500 hamsters, 2500 rabbits, 1500 dogs, 1500 pigs.” The proposed severity level here is ‘mild’ rising to ‘moderate’ (for an indication of what this implies, see the post for 27 March 2017, linked in the notes below); all the animals will be killed as the ‘end-point’. Another project, aiming “to identify hazardous properties of chemical preparations with respect to acute toxicity (including primary irritancy and skin sensitization)”, shows that some version of the Draize test, allied in notoriety to LD50, does persist: as well as 38,000 rodents for various purposes, 2,350 rabbits are to be used in this research for “skin, eye-irritation and dermal toxicity studies”.

Of course there is very great talent wrapped up in these NTS, especially in the more pioneering medical projects. But putting aside for a moment the tragedy of its entanglement in the misuse and suffering of animals, we may also ask how well directed it is. Some of the human problems which recur in the NTS are largely the consequence of wholly voluntary habits of life and their natural penalties. I’m not just thinking of the many references to obesity and diabetes, for which strenuous preventative measures would surely be, if not a complete alternative to this ruthless search for cures, then at least an honourable preliminary to it. There are also (pathetically listed under the heading ‘Animal Welfare’) studies in animal disease which are essentially aimed at making the brutal practice of factory-farming, with all its associated ills, sustainable by medical force.

These farmed-animal studies aren’t notably harsh in themselves: in many, the animals will be treated quite a lot better than they would be on ordinary farms, to which they’re often in fact returned unharmed. And as the category title implies, the ostensible aim is commonly to improve welfare: to enhance nutrition, prevent disease, make detection of injury or other harm easier, kill animals with less hit and miss. This last is quite a research type in itself. There are projects to develop “new stunners/electrode types for turkeys, ducks, geese and chickens”, for instance, or “to evaluate the electrical field strength required for an effective electrical stun in fish”. One project is titled ‘Validating humane killing of small ungulates’. Apparently, newly-born animals that have to be killed as sick or surplus are generally dispatched by “swinging the young animal against the floor or a wall” (ah, the pastoral life!). The research aims to perfect a “non-penetrating percussive device” which will do the killing more “humanely”. Well, that would indeed be more humane than the old swinging method, a desirable improvement therefore. At the same time, such research supports and streamlines a savage and wasteful farming economy. And that’s what most or all of these farm-animal projects do, whether they’re welfare-minded or frankly directed at increasing “performance” (a vile but much-used word for the profitability of an animal).

This is just to evidence yet again what the biologist Lewis Wolpert says in the introduction to his book The Unnatural Nature of Science: “Science … doesn’t tell us how to live”. It only, as translated into technology, eases and reinforces however we do choose to live. In time, if there is time, it will no doubt willingly devise for us the means to leave our responsibilities behind and set about ruining some other planet. But the particular efforts of science which are illuminated a year at a time in these non-technical summaries have gone a bit further in amorality, not simply sharing but also pioneering our wretchedly corrupted relations with other forms and ways of life.

 

Notes and references:

The Non-technical summaries of projects granted in 2016 can be viewed here: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/non-technical-summaries-granted-in-2016

The particular research projects quoted in this post are projects 21, 14, and 15 in the category ‘Projects with a primary purpose of: Regulatory Purposes’ (vol.14), and projects 4, 10, and 2 in the category ‘Translational and Applied Research – Animal Welfare’ (vol.29).

A clear account of the LD50 test and why it needed to be jettisoned, ‘The LD50 – the Beginning of the End’, was written by Andrew Rowan in 1983: it’s still worth reading, and is accessible here: http://animalstudiesrepository.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1031&context=acwp_arte

J.W.Trevan’s original paper can be read here: http://www.dcscience.net/Trevan-PRSB-1927.pdf

Some definitions of the meanings of ‘moderate’ and ‘severe’ are provided in the post titled ‘For We Are Many’: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/03/27/for-we-are-many/

The quotation from The Unnatural Nature of Science by Lewis Wolpert (one-time Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College London), published by Faber and Faber, 1993, is at p.xiv. Incidentally, he also says, at the other end of the book (p.178), “It is to science and technology that we shall have to look for help to get us out of some of the mess in which we now all find ourselves.”

The title of this post comes from The Merchant of Venice, part of Shylock’s claim for the equal humanity of his race with that of the Christians around him. But of course there is an even larger collective than he has in mind of all those affected by pain and death, and accordingly a much larger than human claim upon our moral consideration. We come back to Jeremy Bentham’s rhetorical question, featured on the banner at the top of this page, “Can they suffer?”

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Home Office statistics: numbers, words, and euphemisms

The Home Office has now published its statistical report on the animal research done in Great Britain (i.e. omitting Northern Ireland) during 2015. It shows that 4.14 million ‘procedures’ were completed last year. This is the largest number ever recorded under the 1986 Act, and tends to confirm that the promising drop in the numbers during 2014 (3.87 million) was the result of under-reporting in that year, rather than a sudden change of direction. The new system had just been introduced, whereby the research projects are counted when they finish rather than when they begin, and not everyone seems to have understood it. So the Home Office advises that the new figures should be compared with 2013 rather than 2014 (for VERO’s comment on the 2014 figures, see http://www.vero.org.uk/events.asp.). In that case, there has been a slight increase of 1% or 21 thousand in these ‘procedures’. This in turn means that the real numbers have been rising in every year since 2001, except 2009, which came after a notable jump the year before. During this whole period, the numbers have increased by about 58%.

This new Home Office report makes an exhaustive summary of every countable aspect of the nation’s work as vivisector in 2015. Its own two-page précis can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/538556/scientific-procedures-living-animals-2015snr.pdf. There are other useful and more critical summaries to be found on the web-sites of the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments and Cruelty Free International. These notice, for instance, the rise in numbers of primates used in research (from 3,220 to 3,600), and the continuing use of dogs in toxicology studies, one of the most unpleasant areas of research. There’s also a review on the web-site of Understanding Animal Research, which is the promotional arm of the animal research industry. At the end of it the Chief Executive, Dr Wendy Jarrett, is quoted as saying “today’s statistics will help people to find out more about the reality of animal research in the 21st century.”

Yes, on the face of it the statistics ought to help in that way, but I doubt that they will help much. Quite apart from the varying interpretations which statistics notoriously allow, they address a part of the mind (the numerate) which is completely unrelated to the part where ethics or empathy live. What can one feel about this great torrent of numbers? It’s a crowd scene with no foreground. Every now and then, a detail will catch the dazzled attention. For instance, under the category ‘regulatory testing’ (p.49), the astonishing fact emerges that the LD50 and LC50 tests (= the Lethal Dose or Lethal Concentration that kills 50% of the test animals) are still in use. These true products of the mind as computer, giving a specious accuracy to toxicology tests at the cost of human decency, accounted for 8898 animals in 2015 (mice, rats, and fish).

Nearby, now that one’s eye is adjusted to such detail, it seems that something very like the Draize test (listed as “eye irritation/corrosion”) also survives: 173 rabbits went that way. But what: only 173? In most of the categories, that number would simply have disappeared in the ‘rounding down’ of untidy decimals (see User Guide to Annual Statistics, pp.9-10). On the other hand, you’d certainly hate to see the test done to a rabbit you knew, and you’d be quite properly liable to prosecution for cruelty if you did it yourself. And by the way, that’s a useful reminder that the Home Office is wrong to define the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act in its preamble as “an animal protection measure” (p.5): the Act is also, and much more successfully, an animal-user’s protection measure.

Anyway, such details as the ones mentioned are generally invisible in the glare of the huge numbers. The whole dazzling parade of facts, so competently put together by the Home Office’s statisticians, is therefore a kind of euphemism, tending as much to hide as to show the “reality of animal research in the 21st century”.

A rather more informative source, and a necessary complement to the Annual Statistics, are the ‘non-technical summaries’ of proposed research which the Home Office also publishes (at https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/animal-research-and-testing). There you can see the research in detail, admittedly as presented by its partisans, but in the format required by the Home Office, with answers to questions about purpose, method, the 3Rs, and so on. The animals appear in more comprehensible numbers (150 pigs, 200 chickens), and their kind is more accurately identified (crows, rainbow trout, opossums, voles). What happens to them is more or less picturable, and the scene can be bloody and squalid, even where no suffering is involved: “In parallel to in vivo experiments, we will also carry out in vitro experiments using sheep uteri and ovaries collected from an abattoir” [God, what have we become?]. You get some idea of how scientists may have judged the pain levels which are later to be recorded in the statistics: “The expected adverse effects are the development of skin wounds, inflammation and cancer. In most cases the severity will be mild. However, in some situations, such as tumour development, the severity will be moderate.” [Excellent! Cancer is evidently not as bad as we feared.]

And now, with these and other Home Office publications about animal research to hand, you begin to realize that the word ‘procedure’, the key word in the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA) and the one on which you have to rely if the statistics are to make any sense, is itself a euphemism. Having myself been misled by this word, I shall try to show what’s wrong with it.

For the purposes of the Act, a “regulated procedure” is defined (see the User Guide, p.10) as “any procedure applied to a protected animal for an experimental or other scientific purpose, or for any educational purpose, that may have the effect of causing an animal pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm equivalent to, or higher than, that caused by the introduction of a needle in accordance with good veterinary practice.” The breeding of a genetically altered (GA) animal is quite properly counted as one such procedure under the Act, and we’re told in the 2-page summary that about half of those 4.14 million procedures “related to the creation/breeding of genetically altered animals that were not used in further procedures.” That seems to make good sense. The breeding would be one procedure. Those GA animals for whom that turned out not to be a sufficient contribution to science would become part of other (“further”) procedures, counted as such.

But in fact we know that this isn’t what’s being done. It would mean that there’d be many more procedures than animals in the total count, whereas we’re specifically told that the two numbers are always more or less the same, and that in the rare cases where the number of procedures is higher than the number of animals used “this is due to a re-use of animals” (User Guide, p.9). ‘Re-use’ is a term always meaning ‘used in a different project of research’, which is actually by no means a common practice. And for this purpose, GA breeding apparently doesn’t count as a different project. So the real situation is this: animals which have undergone the GA procedure, and are then used in “further procedures”, still count for only one procedure each.

All right, but even apart from the GA question, ‘procedure’ has a very elastic meaning, which seems to include its own plural. It may just mean an injection, such as the one which is the model for what minimally constitutes a regulated procedure as defined in the Act. On the other hand, it can mean a whole “series of regulated procedures”: that’s the phrase which the Home Office Use, Keeping Alive, and Re-use Advice Note (p.9) uses when reviewing the experience of an animal during one research project, and advising on its suitability for ‘re-use’. The User Guide explains (also p.9): “Each procedure (which may consist of several stages) for a given purpose on an animal is counted as one returnable procedure.” ‘Procedure’, it emerges, is a collective noun, but what exactly it may have collected in any particular instance there’s no way at all of discovering from the statistics.

I don’t know whether I’ve been able to make things clear; probably not, because this key-word in ASPA is not used clearly and consistently even in the official documentation. To summarise, then. A ‘procedure’ is an animal’s whole career of procedures within one research project. If it’s a GA animal, that career will include the procedure which brought it into being, and may or may not include others. In short ‘procedure’ is a term so elastic as to be almost meaningless. The number 4.14 million, therefore, really means 4.14 million multiplied by an unknowable n.

This ambiguity must affect every aspect of the published statistics. For instance, the rule for deciding the painfulness or severity of a ‘procedure’ is that it should be put in the severest of the four classes (sub-threshold, mild, moderate, or severe) which it reaches at any point during the research. But you will see that the meaning of a severity class is itself obscured by the vagueness of the term ‘procedure’. A procedure classed as ‘severe’ may have been a brief torment constituting the whole of an animal’s part in modern science, or it may have entailed that ‘severe’ pain together with a succession of other ‘severe’ or ‘moderate’ or ‘mild’ interventions covering the full period of a research project. It makes a great difference to our understanding and (lest we forget) to the animal concerned, but the difference cannot be indicated in the Home Office statistics.

It’s no wonder, now I come to think of it, that Understanding Animal Research has been content to present the Home Office statistics on its web-site as the “reality” of animal research. In truth, they’re a mixture of understatement, euphemism, and unintelligibility. Despite all the varieties of show and tell that the animal research industry now agrees to, the essential secrecy remains. And I should say that outsiders will never really know what’s going on until we get the number of ‘procedures’ down to nought.

 

References:

For Oxford University’s part in the 2015 numbers, see ‘Multitudes, multitudes’ in this blog (posted 24 April).

The Home Office’s Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals, Great Britain 2015 can be seen at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/537708/scientific-procedures-living-animals-2015.pdf 

Its User Guide to Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals  is at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/538549/guide-animal-procedures.pdf

Use, Keeping Alive and Re-use (dated October 2015) is at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/470008/Use__Keeping_Alive_and_Re-use_Advice_Note.pdf .

Other references are to be found on the relevant web-sites.