Two years ago I watched the Dalai Lama address thousands of laboratory biologists at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington, D.C. At the end of his speech, someone asked about the use of animals in lab research: "That's difficult," replied His Holiness. "Always stress the importance of compassion ... In highly necessary experiments, try to minimize pain."
The first two words of his answer provided most of the moral insight.
Universities already have cumbersome animal research protocols in place to eliminate unnecessary suffering, and few lab workers would do anything but try to minimize pain.
When I first entered graduate school, this Western-cum-Buddhist policy seemed like a neat compromise between protecting animals and supporting the advance of knowledge. But after I'd spent several years cutting up mice, birds, kittens, and monkeys, my mind was changed.
Not because I was any less dedicated to the notion of animal research--I still believe it's necessary to sacrifice living things in the name of scientific progress. But I saw how institutional safeguards served to offload the moral burden from the researchers themselves.
Rank-and-file biologists are rarely asked to consider the key ethical questions around which these policies are based. True, the NIH has for almost 20 years required that graduate training institutions offer a course in responsible research conduct. But in the class I took, we received PR advice rather than moral guidance: What's the best way to keep your animal research out of the public eye?
In practice, I found that scientists were far from monolithic in their attitudes towards animal work. (Drosophila researchers had misgivings about the lab across the hall, where technicians perfused the still-beating hearts of mice with chemical fixative; mouse researchers didn't want to implant titanium posts in the skulls of water-starved monkeys.) They weren't animal rights zealots, of course--they had nothing but contempt for the PETA protestors who passed out fliers in front of the lab buildings. But they did have real misgivings about the extent to which biology research might go in its exploitation of living things.
At the same time, very few of us took the time to consider whether or how we might sacrifice fewer animals (or no animals at all). Why bother, when the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee had already signed off on the research? The hard part of this work isn't convincing an IACUC board to sanction the killing. It's making sure you've exhausted every possible alternative.