Ethics of non-human primate research at UW-Madison

The following question has been posed: Is experimenting on monkeys ethical?  Let’s start by considering an even more ethically stringent question: Is experimenting on humans ethical?  The answer to the latter question is, obviously, sometimes yes and sometimes no.

For human subjects, how do we identify those studies that are ethical?  At UW–Madison, and nationally, this is accomplished by requiring that any proposed study be evaluated and approved by a review board before it can be started.  In other words, the decision is made on a case-by-case basis.

For animal subjects, we and other institutions do the same thing.  As a guiding tool, we employ the ethical philosophy of utilitarianism, in which actions are justified only after benefits are balanced against harm: any ethical analysis must consider both.  Nationally, the elements of this analysis are described by the “U.S. Government Principles for the Utilization and Care of Vertebrate Animals Used in Testing, Research, and Training”.

Consider Principle Ⅱ in this document: “Procedures involving animals should be designed and performed with due consideration of their relevance to human or animal health, the advancement of knowledge, or the good of society”. Here is an explicit requirement to evaluate whether a given study has the potential to produce benefits.  Compare this with a question on the UW–Madison application for animal use:  “Outline the specific scientific goal(s) and significance of this research. Be convincing as to why this work is important for advancement of knowledge, improving human or animal health, or for the good of society.”  Other principles outlined in the document identify the need for pain relief, veterinary care, and appropriate animal housing and husbandry, explicitly addressing potential for harm.  Each is matched with a corresponding request for information on our animal use application.

Thus, ethical considerations are built in to every single review of proposed animal use.  In this way, UW–Madison Animal Care and Use Committees answer the question of whether experimenting on primates, or any animal, is ethical.  Just as for experiments involving humans, only if the answer is yes will an animal study be allowed to proceed.

Ethical consideration of animal use is not limited to application review.  Review committees on this campus have discussed ethics explicitly.  Graduate students and other research trainees take a class on research ethics that includes a unit devoted to animals, and this provides them with the framework to develop their own ethical stand on the issue.  Campus-sponsored seminars have included animal ethicists, and faculty and staff participate in public programs and debates about animal use and ethics.  Nationally, scientific societies, funding agencies, and the federal government review, refine, and set standards for animal use based on both ethical and scientific considerations.  Policy-guiding ethical decisions are made at the national level, balancing the public’s interests in animals and its desire to find treatments for disease.

The people who work with animals are themselves members of the “general public”, and have ethical standards of their own.  They have pets, have families, contribute to social causes, and donate time and money to charities.  Most feel passionately about both the importance of their work and the wellbeing of their animal subjects.  These are not contradictory feelings; rather, they exemplify essential elements of the balancing test that informs both personal and institutional use of any animal in research, education, and outreach.