Welcome to the second in a series of interviews with authors. Richard J Miller is an Emeritus Professor of Pharmacology at Northwestern University. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of Animal Experimentation: Empathy, Science, and the Future of Research, which is published by Oxford University Press.
1. What prompted you to write The Rise and Fall of Animal Experimentation?
As I describe in the first chapter of my book, performing research on animals really bothered me from the very first day I entered a laboratory as a graduate student and was supposed to kill some rats for an experiment. I found I just couldn’t do it and all the rats escaped, garnering me the nickname of the “rat liberationist”. So, I had to learn to cope with the situation by electing to not think about it. Things remained this way for many years; I suppressed the disgust I felt, but it never went away. It just remained buried in the depths of my psyche. As I got older, I think my view of scientific research and its place in the world began to broaden and I became more critical in my thinking. I realized that there were a lot of assumptions I was making with respect to the value and appropriateness of animal research. So, I decided to give it some serious thought. I asked myself several questions that I considered to be important. Why do we do research using animals when the object of this research is to find new medical therapies for humans? What are the origins of this practice, and do they still make sense in today’s world? Scientists assume that animal models are effective in answering questions that apply to humans; but is that true and, if so, how effective are they? Another question I considered was whether animal research is ethical? Should we really be doing it? To answer this question, I needed to try and understand the minds of animals and whether, as Descartes proposed, they are just machines or something far more complex—creatures that are capable of suffering as Jeremy Bentham argued. Finally, I tried to consider the new technologies that have become available to biomedical researchers in the 21st century. There are now a large group of these methodologies that allow scientists to perform experiments directly on human tissues. In particular, there are technologies that are based on the use of human stem cells. These cells can be grown and developed to produce human tissues that precisely reflect the biology of the donor, meaning that, in the future, we will be able to create therapies which are targeted to individual humans. Doing experiments on mice, which are inbred strains, can never be made to reflect the entire spectrum of human diversity.
My conclusions to these questions were surprising. Animal research had its roots in antiquity in Greek science and the reasons why we do it these days are not necessarily valid. Moreover, the vast majority of animal research has very little value these days. Most scientific publications are read by very few people and have little influence on the progress of science. I also realized that animal research would not seem ethical to anyone, including any scientist, who considered the matter seriously. Regrettably, most working scientists don’t think about it at all. The question, as I discuss in the book, is why not?
2. You are an emeritus professor of pharmacology at Northwestern University. What role did your career in science play in informing your position about animal research?
I think it was absolutely essential. Like other professions, it is difficult to understand biomedical research if you haven’t really participated in it. I have read many books about the topic written by people in the humanities, where the authors study what they imagine biomedical research to be like; where they follow scientists around and interview them and so on. Some of these books are well-written but invariably miss the point. Why is that? First, biomedical research is very technical and the scientists that perform the research speak a particular language that allows them to communicate effectively. People who are not trained scientists don’t really understand the lingo or, at least, only understand it up to a point. For example, I absolutely love to read about theoretical physics, and I am acquainted with many of the ideas. But I can’t really critique it effectively. I can’t really read a paper in a physics journal about quantum entanglement, for example, and offer a coherent opinion as to whether the results are valid or not. I need a working physicist to explain it to me and, even then, much of it will be way over my head because I don’t have the necessary training and I don’t speak the language of physics. What we need if we are going to effectively critique the value of animal research is for working scientists to weigh in on these matters. Unfortunately, for reasons I discuss in my book, this rarely happens.
There are many reasons why scientists are reluctant to take on these issues which only a working scientist will understand properly. These reasons have nothing to do with scientific research per se but have to do with the sociology of research and the factors that allow scientists to be successful. Most biomedical researchers have been trained to do certain types of experiments. They are very invested in them, and the grant-giving bodies that fund their research are made up of their colleagues who think the same way. Rocking the boat is considered to be a route to disaster and to be potentially sabotaging one’s scientific career. I should point out that many scientists genuinely care about animals and have pets that they love. But they have been trained to buy into a system where they think they must use animals in their research. The result is that they elect not to think about it very deeply and continue to do the things they have always done.
3. Did you ever use or research with animals in a laboratory? If so, how do you reflect upon it now?
Yes, absolutely, I have done quite a bit of it, about as much as any of my comparable colleagues in the field of pharmacology. As I mentioned, I only really started to think about what I had been doing very critically over the last decade. I reflected on my contributions to science and whether they have contributed anything to the well-being of the human race. I would say they have been extremely average in terms of their impact which, as I explain in my book, means they have had very little real value except from the point of providing me with a reasonably successful academic career. In other words, if I had never done any of these experiments, the world would be just as well off. There was no overall benefit to humanity. Consequently, I very much regret having done these experiments even if they “only involved rats and mice” which, by the way, are very intelligent animals and can be made to suffer a great deal. Indeed, that is the point. Scientists use mice to replicate human diseases. All human diseases involve human suffering and so an animal model that doesn’t involve suffering isn’t a good animal model. We know that a person’s state of mind has enormous consequences for the effectiveness of different therapies. It is impossible to replicate the state of mind of a human very effectively using animals as models and this is one of the major reasons that they are rarely successful. On the other hand, I don’t think I can be too hard on my younger self because I hadn’t thought about animal research seriously enough until recently. It was something I was never encouraged to do.
As a matter of fact, I am still somewhat involved in biomedical research. I no longer have my own laboratory but still act in an advisory capacity to several colleagues who run research laboratories and use animals. Why is this? After writing my book why didn’t I just walk away and have nothing to do with research anymore? The fact is that I want to have some influence on what is going on and try to change peoples’ minds and alter their research habits. As far as working scientists are concerned, if you are not a funded researcher you are no longer part of the conversation. You are persona non grata(or perhaps persona non granta) and will have no influence on anybody. Really scientists are not very interested in reading books by people in the humanities which tell them that what they are doing is inappropriate. These people simply don’t have the right credentials as far as scientists are concerned. But they just might listen to another scientist if that scientist has their respect. So, I spend my time talking to my colleagues and trying to explain why I don’t think animal research is very valid anymore and arguing strictly from a scientific perspective using the technical language that they understand. I think I have started to make some progress in this regard.
4. Is the ethics and efficacy of animal research discussed in the scientific community as it is in the humanities and social sciences? If not, why not?
Definitely not. In the academic departments of research universities and in the pharmaceutical industry scientists are only educated about science. Things like ethics are extraneous subjects. At my own university, which I think is no better or worse than many others, there are constant offerings of seminars and conferences that one can attend. However, all these lectures are about scientific research. There are no lectures devoted to things like ethical problems or related issues in science. Some things like the use of CRISPR gene editing or growing human embryos from stem cells, have wide enough news coverage that they are discussed in scientific journals and may therefore become part of general scientific discourse. But they are not really part of the daily life of a researcher in any formal sense. This is also true of issues pertaining to animal research. There is very little ongoing discussion between working scientists on this matter.
When graduate students first enter a research program in biomedical research at a university, they are required to take a course about ethical issues in science; this is at the behest of the government agencies who are responsible for most of the research funding. Students will have a single lecture on topics such as why they shouldn’t fake their results, why they shouldn’t do things to animals that are outside the law etc. This is so that the university can check a few boxes that are required by government funding agencies. However, once that is done there are no efforts whatsoever to try to engage the students further and foster discussions about any of these issues. At a typical university, there are gazillions of lectures on every type of biomedical research topic but none on ethical issues. It would not be at all difficult to organize a series where important speakers from the humanities, the law school or well-known authors came and gave a public lecture series, just like we have lecture series on subjects like cancer or Alzheimer’s Disease. But most universities don’t do this. Apparently, we are told, scientists are already ‘too busy’ writing grants to fund their salaries and their research to spend any time on such matters. Years ago, I took it upon myself to teach a course on the history and philosophy of science and I think the students found it interesting. However, I frequently heard from the university administration or other investigators that they didn’t want their students to take the course as it was “a waste of their time” and they should occupy themselves with increasing their basic scientific knowledge. It’s too bad. Most scientists are woefully ignorant about the history of their research and how their field developed and so they have very little perspective on science in general which makes it difficult for them to really evaluate the importance of what they are doing.
Many of these attitudes are the result of pressures that come from the university administration which is responsible for promoting a scientist’s career. One should realize that modern universities, however prestigious they may be, have really abandoned any idea that they are institutions that foster activities like scholastic excellence. They are now giant corporations whose sole goal appears to be promoting their “brand” and scoring as much cash as possible. They are most concerned with things like where they appear in national rankings and other kinds of ephemera. If you win the Nobel Prize or are in the news for some reason that the university thinks will help promote their brand, they will make a good deal of public fuss about how wonderful their research environment is. But they are fundamentally not interested in promoting activities that don’t directly lead to bringing in funding. Having lectures on things like ethics is considered as potentially rocking the boat and there is no effort whatsoever to encourage this type of thing and working scientists know this. I should mention that there are ethics lectures for medical students who must engage with human patients, but that is a very different matter.
5. How close are we to the fall of animal experimentation?
Well, as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. The important thing is that there are now clear alternatives to animal research, and these are becoming more and more sophisticated every day. The perceived need to use animals in biomedical research is rapidly disappearing in the rearview mirror. Nevertheless, most scientists have been taught to think a certain way about how to conduct biomedical research and the use of animals is very much part and parcel of this enterprise. So, scientists who are well-established in their careers are probably not going to abandon what they do and start doing something different unless, of course, they think that this is a better way of getting their work funded. They are not going to appreciate somebody knocking on their door and telling them that their research is now out of date and not in touch with cutting-edge technology or the way the public feels about animals these days. But, as the physicist Max Planck once said, “Science progresses one funeral at a time”, and, indeed, there is a lot of truth to that. The system is self-perpetuating because these same scientists sit on the review committees that award grants to other scientists. On the other hand, clever young scientists who do not necessarily buy into the old ways of doing things are pushing the field forward using new human-centred research paradigms that don’t require the use of animals. Eventually, we will reach a tipping point where it is clear to everybody that most of the research that uses animals is out of date and that using newer methods not only represents cutting-edge science but is also the way to get your research funded. At that point university administrators will start to take notice and universities will start to encourage their scientists to work with these new scientific paradigms. It will become the standard way of doing things and animal researchers will be left behind. It’s hard to know exactly how long this will take but it will be sooner rather than later as the field is developing very quickly. I can tell you that animal-based research is rapidly disappearing. We won’t miss it!