Animal experiments and 3R (4/4): Interview with animal ethicist Herwig Grimm

The president of the National Research Programme "Advancing 3R" explains how research can deal with the moral dilemma of animal testing.

Herwig Grimm is professor of animal ethics at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna and president of the Steering Committee of the National Research Programme "Advancing 3R – Animals, Research and Society" (NRP 79). The remit of the NRP is to advance the 3Rs principles replace, reduce, refine.

Herwig Grimm, why is animal ethics so important for biomedical research?

Society has become more aware of the needs of animals: we have learned that many animals are sentient and intelligent and that we owe them respect. At the same time, we are witnessing a loss of confidence in scientific research. This creates a contentious situation: what are we as a society willing to accept to generate knowledge?

An ethical dilemma

The moral crux lies in the use of sentient beings for the interests of others. After all, the laboratory mice and the other animal models do not benefit from the experiments themselves.

How do ethicists approach this difficult question?

In different ways. There is a strong body of opinion that fundamentally calls animal experimentation into question: because animals have a right to be treated ethically, using them for the benefit of others needs to stop. This clear and, at first sight, simple solution represents the rights-based approach: making trade-offs would in itself be morally wrong. Other ethics approaches seek to balance different interests. My approach is guided by applied ethics, which recognises that we are not in a vacuum. There are laws that regulate animal testing, contexts in which it takes place, and there are better and worse justifications for it. But there's no doubt: we won't come out of this debate looking good as long as animals are instrumentalised for scientific purposes. Therefore, we should try to ensure that the problem arises as rarely as possible. This can be formulated as a "no, but" rule that makes animal testing an exception, which in a strict reading is actually already enshrined in Swiss and also Austrian law.

Does that mean all animal ethics approaches amount to advocacy for animals?

No, animal ethics does not equal animal welfare. There are also approaches that do not support the intrinsic moral value of animals. But applicable law speaks a clearly different language here: legally, they have a right to be protected. But the central question is, how can this protection be ensured? How can we better deal with the unfair distribution of benefits and harms?

In our country, animal experimentation commissions weigh the suffering of laboratory animals against the benefits for humans, other animals and the environment. Is this a reasonable way out of the ethical dilemma?

By analogy with what Churchill said about democracy: the weighing of interests is the worst method, all others excepted. It is very difficult to perform because we are comparing apples with pears. Distress and harm on one side; knowledge, training, health, environmental protection, biodiversity on the other. A lot of people have ruminated over how such trade-offs can be made despite the lack of comparability. Either we try to quantify everything and thus establish comparability, or we let members of a commission deliberate until a reasoned decision is reached, as in many countries in Europe. I find the Swedish model, in which 50 per cent of the members of the commissions are laypeople, fascinating. They have to discuss highly complex research projects. Whether that always works well is another question, however.

What is the role of the 3R principles, which aim to promote alternative methods, fewer animals and better conditions?

The weighing of interests only makes sense if one checks beforehand whether the 3R principles were applied. The 3Rs are older than the weighing of interests and were derived from the logic of research. The aim is to design experiments as humanely as possible, as Russel and Burch put it in 1959. The first question to ask is: what burden on the animal is unavoidable to achieve a particular research objective? Only then can the weighing of interests be used to clarify the proportionality between the scientific goal and the unavoidable stress and harm caused to the animal to achieve this goal.

What is your position regarding the calls for the first R, replacement methods, to be prioritised?

Replacement methods are the only ones that can really make the basic ethical problem disappear. If this is not the case and animals are used, then the other two Rs come into play, which at least aim to improve the situation. This path then leads to the weighing of interests, which is an expression of the basic problem and a tentative solution at the same time.

Where does research stand today on improving 3R methods?

There is no doubt that innovative new methods are key in this area. What is more, broader aspects, though important, are less researched. For example: why is 3R research not yet a prestigious research field? In which areas is the potential particularly great? Does implementation involve any hurdles in practice? In other words: how do you make it easier to integrate these methods into laboratory work? As far as I can tell as a humanities scholar, little research has been done on such topics. I hope that the NRP "Advancing 3R - Animals, Research and Society" can make a forward-looking contribution in this regard.

Do you think the NRP can really change the way things are?

We're working on just that. We received some very promising concepts on how to change things. This also involves, in particular, disseminating existing and new knowledge and making it accessible. The fact that these aspects are taken into account is something I find very exciting about this NRP. It remains to be seen how much of a lasting impact it will have.

In the call for proposals, few projects came from the humanities and social sciences. What do you think was the reason for this?

That surprised me a lot. Perhaps we have not sufficiently emphasised and publicised the fact that the NRP includes in-depth research on the societal aspects. The upcoming initiative shows just how important those aspects are. And there are definitely research institutes in Switzerland that look into such questions. That’s why we are taking another stab at this by launching a second call for proposals on “Ethics and Society” – we hope this will attract outstanding projects that are not primarily in the natural sciences.

Are there any unresolved issues that you find particularly interesting?

There are many unanswered questions. But the question "What happens afterwards?" is particularly challenging. Today, laboratory animals are usually euthanised after their scientific use. That's a pity and clearly reveals the exploitative nature of this practice. How beneficiaries of the experiments could show gratitude to these animals would be an interesting question. A second question concerns "the before" – how are animals bred for the lab? There is still a lot of room for improvement and the 3R principles also stand for venturing into difficult fields.

So would you like to have a kind of abdication ceremony for the animals?

Maybe. Take, for example, the Lipizzaners at the Spanish Riding School here in Vienna. They'll go into a retirement facility when they're no longer good for shows. Given the current numbers of laboratory animals, this is clearly still a utopian concept, however.

Innovation, implementation and dialogue on 3Rs

The National Research Programme "Advancing 3R – Animals, Research and Society" (NRP 79) aims to significantly reduce the number of laboratory animals and improve their welfare. It is also intended to provide a basis for discussion between supporters and opponents of animal experimentation. Research is conducted across three modules: Innovation, Implementation, and Ethics and Society. As few projects were submitted in the third module, a targeted second call will be launched in this subject area.

The NRP was mandated by the Federal Council. Research will start in June 2022 and continue for five years. The programme budget is 20 million francs. In 2028, a final report on the programme will be available.

20 million francs for research into 3Rs

In 2019, the SNSF funded research worth more than CHF 970 million Swiss francs. Around 140 million francs were spent on research projects that involve animal testing. However, these projects consist to a large extent of research without animals (see link Episode 1). In addition, the SNSF also funds 3R projects that are not designated as such (see link Episode 2). The 3R Competence Centre (3RCC) provides a dedicated funding scheme for 3R research and for improving animal experiments. The NRP and the 3RCC are collaborating closely on these issues.

SNSF position on animal experimentationExternal Link Icon