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The role of the animal ethics committee in achieving humane animal experimentation Schuppli, Catherine Anne

Abstract

Institutional Animal Ethics Committees (AECs) are the principal means of ensuring the ethical use of animals in research in many countries, yet we understand very little about how they function and how effective they are in implementing policy and achieving their stated aims. To answer these questions, an ethnographic study involving participant observation and in-depth interviews with 28 members of four university AECs in western Canada was carried out. The major focus of protocol review by committee members was reducing harm to animals, with limited focus on the ethical justification of research despite this being stressed in policy as a goal of AECs. In part, this may be due to confusion over the relation between AEC review and scientific peer review by granting agencies, with some members believing that ethical justification is decided by scientific peer review. Members were also unclear on the distinction between the different elements that go into decisions about ethical justification. Use of costbenefit assessment, although prescribed by policy, did not cover the various other decisionmaking approaches that members described using (e.g. moral intuition). Comments by members identified several factors that could hinder application of the Three Rs (Replacement, Reduction, Refinement); these include an incomplete understanding of the concepts, different interpretations of harm, and different beliefs about the moral significance of pain and suffering. Moreover, some ethical issues do not lend themselves to the utilitarian thinking underlying the Three Rs. Independence of the AEC from the institution (as required by policy) may not be realized because of the predominance of institutional scientists on AECs, recruitment of affiliated community members, and the potentially intimidating atmosphere for community members. Also, policy is unclear about the role of the community member. AEC effectiveness could be improved by clarifying the role of the community member, the relation between AEC and scientific peer review, and the elements of cost-benefit assessments, by expanding policy to acknowledge the various issues and approaches used in decision-making, identifying standards for assessing AEC performance, and expanding the Three Rs to respond to the range of views and values that enter into decisions by AEC members.

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