Time to Abandon the Three Rs

Submitting to ?refinement, reduction, and replacement? risks the future of animal research

By | February 1, 2006

<figcaption> Credit: G. Robert Bishop/Getty Images</figcaption>
Credit: G. Robert Bishop/Getty Images

The best hopes to treat or cure any number of diseases all rely on current animal experiments. Like all science, the investigations that scientists perform with animals increase our knowledge of nature and can therefore increase the possibilities for human action, advancing the cause of human freedom. So why do scientists persist in denigrating their own behavior by advocating the three Rs: refinement, reduction, and replacement?

In the United Kingdom, since the passage of the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, researchers must obtain a license from the Home Office, which involves an assessment of the invasiveness of the study and the species used, following the principles of the three Rs. Invariably, licensing will require considerable justification for any procedures that involve distressing the animal, and considerable pressure will be applied for the use of fewer animals, and from further down the phylogenetic tree (such as using rats rather than primates). Although legislation is less stringent in the United States, in practice the three Rs are still enforced by Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees, which voluntarily assess any proposed research with respect to the three Rs and provide assurance to grant-awarding bodies that the research is animal welfare-friendly.

Through a variety of voluntary and enforced mechanisms, therefore, animal researchers pledge to uphold the three Rs. At first blush, that seems reasonable, if somewhat patronizing. All animal experimenters have an incentive to reduce the amount of stress an animal is subjected to ? through refinement ? because a stressed animal will be less likely to behave or respond normally and might therefore skew results. Equally, all researchers will naturally tend to use fewer or less-costly animals or techniques ? through reduction and replacement ? in order to get quicker results for fewer resources.

The three Rs, however, are much worse than patronizing; they are disastrous. They draw attention away from the value of experimentation and toward the importance of animal welfare. By extension, animal experimentation will be looked upon negatively because no animal experiment is in the interests of animal welfare. Adoption of the three Rs comes across as a confession of guilt. The impression is that research animals are a necessary evil, when in fact they are just necessary.

The three Rs also raise false expectation that animals will eventually be replaced as experimental test subjects, which is highly unlikely. Last year, in the United Kingdom alone, 2.85 million scientific tests on animals were performed. More, not less, animal research will likely be required to investigate burgeoning models of genetic disease.

Ultimately, we cannot have it both ways. It is not possible to advocate animal welfare and at the same time give animals untested drugs or diseases, or slice them open to test a new surgical procedure. The three Rs encourage a focus on animal welfare that is both unrealistic and dishonest. Regardless of any beliefs about the value of animals, if you engage in activities that are invasive or lethal to animals or if you control their reproduction, their living space and their habits, you are expressing a de facto belief that animals are sufficiently different from humans to make such activities justifiable. Scientists are keen to defend themselves against accusations of cruelty by promoting their allegiance to the three Rs but forget that the real reason for animal experimentation is to advance the welfare and understanding of humanity. Advancing human understanding requires the freedom to do more animal research, and often with higher species, and is incompatible with continued support for the three Rs.

Those of us who research on animals or support that research have made a moral choice to put humans first. We should behave and argue with a conviction that is worthy of the choice. Animal experimentation is a positive activity that advances our appreciation of nature and disease, and defending animal research should be part of a moral campaign that celebrates human knowledge and understanding. Simultaneously advocating animal research while trying to apologize and introduce alternatives is a poor defense of animal experimentation. Successful promotion of animal research can only begin when we withdraw support for the three Rs.

Stuart Derbyshire is a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Birmingham. sderbyshire@the-scientist.com

Related article: How regulation hamstrings animal research http://www.the-scientist.com/display/news/23126 )

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