Of mice and men

If there is any literature-derived cliché in the scientific world that studies the two species, it is precisely this title. But in this very case, I can’t resist it. The human nature as John Steinbeck captures and describes in just over a hundred pages is also the one who is so clearly visible in a hot, if not rancorous Internet discussion going on right now. In what is expected to be a scientific forum.

The topic is the research report on pain and facial expression in mice that I wrote about here in early June. A few days ago the US-based Principal Investigator’s Association asked its – and ultimately of course, a number of additional – readers if this study was consistent with existing animal welfare rules and whether there were ethical questions which should have been raised before the trial was approved and published. Of course these are not unreasonable questions to ask about a study of pain in animals.

But to ask the readers of an open web forum to act as judges in a case of whether an experiment on animals should be approved is opening a snake’s nest. At the international level there are few research issues as infected as this one. This was evident within a few hours after the question was asked, and having prepared myself to write as fact-based as possible an analysis of the question I simply choked on what had already been said. Those who take the time to scroll down through the posts will understand why. But it is worth the trouble to do it, because what follows is a unique combination of ill-invectives and critical analysis that clearly indicates how widely differing perceptions and misperceptions that exist of the animal experimentation issue. And for the researcher interested in understanding what research communication is all about, there is a lesson to be learned about how more or less critical thinking non-scientists view what is an important research issue and a reasonable method to study it. As well as how researcher colleagues tackle the task of engaging in a rancorous debate.

I myself am somewhat hesitant about whether I should be writing this post at all, because I think I will continue to reflect on this for a long time to come, and what I write now is not necessarily what I will think in a couple of months. I’m not quite convinced that it is right to draw attention to the original discussion either. As many researchers have already expressed, the issue was wrongly addressed and, above all not appropriately presented. The study is published in a journal that is not Open Access, which means that those readers who do not have access to Nature Methods must rely on the description of the study presented by Principal Investigator’s Association, and which is insufficient and probably misleading on at least one central and very critical point: the how severe the pain was that the mice were exposed to.

Of course it is a huge paradox to expose animals to pain in the name of animal welfare research. This isn’t really the right description of the study in question either because the researchers are not primarily motivated by animal welfare concerns but by their research interest in pain psychology more generally. But the questions they ask and the findings they present are central for animal welfare research in a manner that is not quite easy to explain to those who are not familiar with the subject. For who seeing the world through the glasses of common sense would doubt that animals can feel pain? And how simplistic can researchers be to think it is a question worth asking?

Why then is the question of pain expression in mice important? Because the answer takes us a little bit closer to the possibility of measuring the immeasurable – that is, animal subjective experience. This, or more precisely consciousness, is what one of the world’s pioneering animal welfare scientists – Oxford behavioural biologist Marian Dawkins – described as the one major remaining mystery in biology. And it sits right in the center of animal welfare research. Whether it justifies the current study is another issue that science media will continue to discuss over the coming weeks. I will update with links.

Author: Anna Olsson

Animal welfare scientist.

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