International Collaborations Can Maintain Animal Welfare Standards and Advance Science
In the midst of an ongoing pandemic, there has never been a greater period in our lifetime to promote science globally. While it might seem paradoxical that international scientific work proceeds, considering global travel is restricted, many scientists remain active across the continents, working day-by-day to chip at pressing problems and the unknown frontiers of science. The success of both basic and clinical research pursuits is supported by such global efforts. Notably, in both basic and clinical research, animals have also played an integral part. A testament to that is the essential role of animals in developing not just one, but several vaccines for COVID-19 (see here). Now, at a time when non-human primate species are in high demand, but short supply (NY Times), we face a reminder of how critical animals are not only for scientific advances but also to the international community.
As with anything on a global scale, there are a variety of factors that play together. Here, they include the intertwining of cultural, societal, ethical, and scientific values. The complexity of finding common ground is obvious, however, not impossible. Facing this reality, we can at least acknowledge how far science has already come. Scientists and scientific organizations have been generators of policy change for years. Science itself has generated a great deal of knowledge about living beings and the world around, so much so that findings have continued to inform and shape ethical considerations and practices. The question then arises, where do we go from here?
We need to identify a set of common standards, being sensitive to the autonomy, societal positions, and resources of different nations. International context and empirical data can work to inform agreeable standards. This is not to say that there will be no compromise. Actually, compromises are expected, similar to how compromises are the fruit of all labor in international policy. A 2016 publication proposing a framework for broad consideration of ethical use and treatment of captive animals (i.e., chimpanzees) across settings, further underscores that this is not a new issue for science or international policy. However, by taking transparent and fact-based discussions even the most complex issues can be tackled – diplomatic scientific relations, if you will.
It has sometimes been conveyed that Western standards are the gold standard that other countries should aspire to attain, but what is missing from that perspective is (a) the resources and (b) a comparative examination of regulatory and research approval processes of different nations. Naturally, developing countries may not have a financial means to construct infrastructure to house animals as per the guidelines of the European Union, for example, but they could be assisted as part of an international collaboration during IAWUC consideration. An international committee, such as the IAWUC, should also help elevate developing nations in its efforts to promote accessibility to science while questioning whether the costs allocated by wealthy nations are indeed better for animal welfare. It is not always the case that costs directly relate to better care for research animals.
Furthermore, it is not about which country has the best policies for animal use and care, it is what is best for the livelihood of animals and humans, health and scientific progress, which an evidence-based approach considers. We should support the principle that any standard be vetted and evidence-based, with clearly articulated rationale. Overall, we can help to avoid the exodus of research from countries that are under too much regulatory burden, have insufficient investment in infrastructure, and/or have created standards that raise costs so much it is untenable to do the work (e.g., financial costs, public relations and risk costs). We can do this by setting a reasonable standard.
When promoting international relations and collaborations, the importance of community engagement cannot be understated. Engagement is required not only on behalf of the scientists, regulators, and policy makers but also by the public, by society. Often, public communication and engagement falls outside the scope of academic responsibilities, yet it is a service not only to science but also to members of the public when the discussions are continued.