VOLUME 29 , NUMBER 11 -November 1998

Making the case for animal research

By Richard McCarty
Executive Director for Science

Since 1970, my research efforts and a substantial part of my supervision of undergraduate and graduate students have related to laboratory experimentation with nonhuman animals. Over that 28-year period, I have experienced first-hand many of the changes that have occurred in the conduct, regulation and financing of animal research at colleges and universities.

Many of these regulatory changes governing research with animals have in the long run improved the health and well-being of laboratory animals and the quality of data generated. However, others, I would argue, have done little more than inconvenience researchers and increase the cost of maintaining a laboratory animal research program within a department or research center. In fact, some psychology department chairs have been confronted with the difficult choice of devoting more and more money to maintaining the departmental vivarium or eliminating laboratory animals from the teaching and research programs of the department.

What is at stake?

A reasonable question to consider is: At what level should animal research be represented in departments of psychology? Although I admit to a bias, I believe that a strong program in animal research is critical for departments’ research and teaching missions. Many of the most important developments in psychology over the past century have been linked to or informed by research with animals. Prominent examples include studies of maternal-infant interactions, brain mechanisms of reward, learned helplessness, psychoneuroimmunology, behavior genetics, biofeedback, effects of stress on brain and behavior, age-related memory decline, neural imaging of brain function, evolutionary basis of altruistic behavior, learning theory and gender differences in behavior.

Are we shortchanging our students if they do not receive adequate instruction about the role played by animal research in advancing the discipline of psychology? Some students seek out opportunities for laboratory courses involving experiments with animals. Still others look to work with faculty in animal research laboratories during their undergraduate training. Within the limits of tight budgets and faculty expertise, these opportunities in teaching and research relating to animals should be available to interested students.

What if psychology departments turn away from opportunities in the area of animal research? Here I think the answer is clear. The kind of questions that are of interest to psychologists will not be posed if we rely on scientists in other disciplines to conduct animal research. The net result will be a decrease in new ideas for many areas of human research and a big loss for our discipline.

Animal research and APA

APA has recognized for many decades the critical role of animal research for the discipline of psychology. The association has been actively involved in promoting the value of animal research to Congress, federal funding agencies and the public. My colleagues and I in the Science Directorate work with the Committee on Animal Care and Ethics (CARE), which is charged with reviewing for APA all issues relating to the conduct of animal research. This committee has a history that can be traced back to 1925, and its members over the past 73 years have included some of the major figures in 20th-century American psychology.

Among their many activities over the past several years, members of CARE have developed an ambitious plan to produce a video series that portrays the value of animal research in many subareas of psychology. The first video on 'Perception and Action' received generous financial support from the APA Council of Representatives. APA Council members previewed this 14-minute video at APA’s Annual Convention in August and gave it their strong endorsement. It is now available for purchase from APA Books and is ideal for use in courses on introductory psychology. The second video in the series, which will be funded by outside sources, will deal with the topic of 'Psychopharmacology.' This video series is a remarkable accomplishment for CARE and reflects the dedication of its members.

Looking ahead

Animal research is vital to psychology. Many new research opportunities are now available for using genetically modified mice to relate behavior to gene expression within discrete areas of the brain. In addition, basic research with laboratory animals continues to provide important insights into many aspects of human behavior. As we approach the 21st century, I cannot imagine that the rapid pace of discovery in scientific psychology will be maintained without a strong and continuing commitment to animal research.

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