How much data is a rat’s life worth?

The rules and regulations of using live animals in university education.

Image: Maxim Adams

Last year, I took an optional psychology course involving a behavioural experiment on rats. Having sat through a year of lectures in which many of the foundational principles of behavioural psychology were explained to us with reference to the animal-based experiments which informed them, I was excited — this felt like ‘real’ science.

Our tutorial material covered how to treat the rats properly — gently, in low light and with little noise — but unfortunately it’s difficult to control the noise level of a room full of students. The effects of loud noises were obvious, with our rat freezing in its tracks and losing concentration when people nearby laughed or spoke above a low hum. Still, I started to like our little rat, who we named Delilah, and became invested in her progress towards pressing a lever.

While talking to someone about the course, they told me not to get attached to the rats because they would be killed at the end of the experiment. I later learned this was probably incorrect, but was horrified by the idea that the animals lived just to facilitate our learning, particularly for a major I later dropped.

A student I did the course with had a similar experience when their rat seemed distressed. They said that while they found it useful to see and influence conditioning first-hand, they believe, “it wasn’t entirely necessary in order to learn the concept … [and] I don’t think the benefits of the class were significant enough to justify the harm we appeared to do to the rats.”

The experience made me wonder how the University regulates the use of animals in teaching, given that teaching lacks the more obvious benefits of animal research (scientific and medical advancement) and places animals in the (supervised) hands of relatively inexperienced students.

Animal research is generally a very divisive issue. The University of Sydney conducts research and teaching activities involving a whole range of animals, from laboratory and domestic mammals to non-human primates (marmosets). It has come under fire particularly for that last category. In January 2016, a Fairfax Media investigation by Natalie O’Brien revealed experiments at USyd involving marmosets being used “to take electrophysiological readings from their brains before they were killed with an overdose and then had their eyes removed so their retinas could be dissected”.

However, the research on marmosets represents a very small proportion of the research conducted at USyd. According to information released by USyd under the Government Information (Public Access) Act, 16 marmosets have been used in research at the University since 2012 — eight in 2012, six in 2015 and two in 2016. All of these experiments involved the marmosets being anaesthetised, experimented on, and then killed without regaining consciousness. In 2016, 44.95 per cent of research was conducted on laboratory mammals, 21.92 per cent on domestic mammals, 19.31 per cent on birds and 13.82 per cent on other animals. Duncan Ivison, USyd’s Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research), tells me, “We don’t have the capacity on campus to do significant non-human primate research … you need very specialised and appropriate facilities and it’s just not something we’re capable of doing.”

So, what of research more generally? All institutions undertaking animal research are required, under the the NSW Animal Research Act and the Australian Code for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes, to establish Animal Ethics Committees (AECs) to oversee animal research. All AECs must include at least one vet, one animal researcher, one independent person with a “demonstrated commitment to animal welfare” and one independent lay person. Dr Peter Knight, the Head of the Discipline of Biomedical Science and Deputy Chair of one of the University’s two AECs, believes this composition and the requirement of unanimity for research to go ahead ensures AECs reflect society’s views. As these views change, he believes, “it’s inevitable that it would become more difficult to get protocols approved in the future.”

The AECs are responsible for ensuring all approved protocols address the ‘three Rs’ — replacement (getting rid of animals in the research entirely), reduction, and refinement (decreasing the impact of the research on the animals’ well-being) — as much as possible. Ivison tells me the University is very committed to these principles. “[We] award a prize every year to the researcher who’s done the most to exemplify the three Rs.” The AECs may send applications back to researchers to take consider these principles more deeply, which Knight says happens to “much more than 50 per cent” of applications. Some never receive approval.

Projects using animals in teaching are assessed broadly in the same way as research. As the AEC assesses applications by weighing up benefits and costs, there is generally a higher standard for proving the benefits of teaching compared to research.

“If you were euthanising a large number of animals specifically for the purpose of teaching, I don’t think the Animal Ethics Committee would approve it,” Knight tells me. “There may be animals that are going to be euthanised because they’ve reached the end of an experiment … but I would be extremely surprised if the Animal Ethics Committee said that you could euthanise a large number of animals purely for teaching purposes.” Similarly, Knight believes projects involving highly invasive procedures or requiring animals to be bred specifically for them would have to show significant benefits to be justifiable as they involve greater costs.

While animal use in teaching represents a small proportion of projects involving animals at the University — currently only 6 per cent of active projects are for teaching purposes — there were still 6498 instances* of animal use for teaching across a range of disciplines in 2016.

Many of these procedures appear to be non-invasive based on the statistics for NSW overall. In 2015–2016, 40,249 of the 48,064 total instances of animal use in education fell into the two categories “observation involving minor interference” (22,837) and minor procedures not involving anaesthesia or analgesia (17,412), which includes shearing, injections or blood sampling, and trapping and release. Classic examples include vet students practising ultrasounds and other techniques for use in their careers, according to the University of Sydney’s Animal Welfare Vet, Dr Shaun Miller.

The AEC’s scrutiny of animal use for teaching has also lead to some applications being rejected. Knight explains that three applications from the Science Faculty were rejected recently because they involved euthanasia. The applications were for animal use in classes the faculty has have run for a number of years but, Knight says, “the fact that they are considered basic experiments is not good enough grounds for the Animal Ethics Committee to approve the experiment. There has to be basically no alternative … if there’s an opportunity to replace with something then the Animal Ethics Committee will expect that the animals will be replaced”.

In teaching, technological advancements have made it possible to replace some animal use with alternatives. For vet students, models and prostheses such as the ‘Breed’n Betsy’ can be used to practise skills. The wonderfully named ‘Betsy’ allows students to practice artificial breeding, pregnancy diagnosis and embryo transfer. Though models may not completely remove the need for practise on real animals, “the idea is that students are then more proficient, they know what they’re doing, there’s less risk of stressing the [animal] unduly” later, Miller says. Other options for replacement include computer models, in vitro techniques and even techniques involving 3-D printing, Miller explains. “So as all these things improve, the research and teaching will have to keep up.” Again, Knight explains that the AEC weighs up the importance of actually practising the skills as opposed to seeing demonstrations and simulating them. Sometimes, the decision will be made in favour of the teaching, e.g. in veterinary science where knowing how to do a real suture has obvious importance for the safety of animals in the future. Other times, the AEC finds that the learning outcome is not worth the cost.

However, AECs are not without their critics. Dr Denise Russell, an Honorary Research Fellow in the University of Wollongong’s Philosophy Program, argues that AECs fail to appropriately consider replacement in their deliberations on applications. In an article, she notes that research applicants generally come from disciplines “in which animal experimentation has been the norm,” and alternatives not explored as thoroughly. The applicants are required to present the alternatives themselves in their applications, which Russell says puts an “unrealistic expectation” on them to assess all alternatives. The composition of the members also, she argues, does not include people from disciplines most focused on alternatives, such as computer simulation.

However, perhaps introducing these alternatives at the teaching stage could pave the way for more thoughtful consideration of alternatives in future research applications.

And this is important, because animal research seems here to stay. There are, of course, critics to animal research — Russell cites research about animal testing and concludes, “The human benefits are shown to be quite meagre.” However, while Ivison acknowledges this debate, he is also resigned to the inevitability of animal research. “There’s a really legitimate debate about … the extent to which we can replace some of those experiments with other means … but replacing animals entirely, in many domains of medical research, is just not feasible in the current time. It might be at some future point, and I think there’s a lot of interesting work going on in that domain. But for a lot of really significant areas of medical research, in relation to really devastating human diseases and challenges, animals are still part of the research environment.”