You've heard both sides of the de-ate—passionate demonstrators decrying every lab experiment using animals, pitted against detached scientists pushing any research protocol regardless of the costs to critters.
But between these extremes lies a vast middle ground, and that's where most of us take refuge, according to one psychologist. Rather than make a blanket judgment on the ethics of animal research, we tiptoe past the emotional minefield and rationally weigh the pros and cons of each experiment.
Under the direction of Carl Kallgren, Ph.D., undergrads at Penn State, Erie, read descriptions of fictional research projects and rated each on its ethics. The research promised either a high or low benefit for humans—a stomach cancer vaccine or a pleasant-smelling air freshener—at either a great or small cost to the research animal--temporary restraint versus death and dissection. In some scenarios the creature was a rabbit; in others, a rat.
The students' reactions indicate that they're doing a rational cost-benefit analysis to reach a verdict, conclude Kallgren and colleague Teneke Warren. The project rated most ethical was the one that tested a cancer vaccine on shackled animals (high benefit, low cost), while the least virtuous involved killing animals in pursuit of a pine-scented air freshener (low benefit, high cost).
"It appears that people say, 'If there's a benefit to humans, do the research,'" Kallgren explains. "But as the costs accrue to the non-human species, they aren't quite as favorable,"
Nonetheless, the "cuteness factor" does come into play. Students said that icky rats were more suitable lab subjects than cuddly rabbits. Kallgren believes such species attributes--the creature's cuteness, how close it is to humans, and whether it is considered harmful of helpful--may be more likely to influence the judgments of folds outside the ivory tower. Collegians may hold animal research in higher regard: They learn about the results of studies in their classes.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Sign of the times: animal research under fire.