Opinion: We can advance science without hurting animals
“Science for the sake of science” is a mantra used in academia when research is geared toward quelling a curiosity rather than solving a problem. These studies result in interesting albeit useless information, and they objectively take funding away from labs that are working toward curing diseases, fighting climate change and creating medical devices, just to name a few applications. As if funding “science for the sake of science” isn’t insulting enough to taxpayers, many of these studies harm animals, despite most people agreeing that animal research isn’t justified without a beneficial outcome.
In the Roth Lab at the university, this is exactly what’s happening. Here, newborn animals are forced to ingest alcohol and receive opioid injections, babies’ feet are electrically shocked and infants are torn from their mothers and placed with intentionally distressed foster moms who neglect and abuse them. And it’s all subsidized with federal grant money. As a university alum, I’m disappointed. As a taxpayer, I’m upset. And as someone who cares about animals, I’m outraged.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the experiments taking place in the university’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. The Roth Lab intentionally terrifies pregnant rats by squeezing them into PVC tubes only 2.5 inches wide three times a day for three weeks, and by bombarding them with high-frequency strobe lights and white noise. The experimenters want to see the effects this experience would have on their babies.
Rats are also subjected to the “forced swim” test in which they’re dropped into inescapable water-filled beakers while experimenters record how long they struggle. Unwanted newborns are killed by injecting liquid formaldehyde directly into their hearts, a killing method that is not approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association because it’s considered inhumane.
The aim of this research is to induce trauma to see if physical and psychological abuse results in altered DNA methylation representative of impaired mental health. In other words: does abusing rats cause certain genes to turn on and off, and does this correlate with their mental health?
Students of Tania Roth, the lab’s principal investigator, say that her justification is, “Would you rather I do this on human babies?” This suggests that the research is necessary to begin with, and insinuates that if you oppose her research, you must support human child abuse.
But psychological research has already shown us that child abuse results in impaired mental health, and we already know that DNA methylation occurs in response to environmental factors, such as exposure to trauma. To truly help human children, funding should be reallocated to childhood mental-health research rather than cruel and useless experiments.
Despite the extreme suffering they cause, these experiments continue because rats are excluded from the federal Animal Welfare Act, and the state of Delaware exempts laboratory experiments from cruelty-to-animals prosecution. If the same abuse was inflicted on an animal outside of a laboratory, it would result in cruelty-to-animals charges.
Although these experiments are legal with respect to cruelty statutes, the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare documents reveal that the Roth Lab has repeatedly violated federal guidelines by failing to properly care for the rats. According to these documents, one rat drowned to death during a forced swim test when the researcher failed to notice that the rat was no longer able to keep his head above water. In another incident, an experimenter restricted food without approval, and the rats lost 15 percent of their body weight in just nine days. In a third incident, a fire poured smoke into a room in which 75 rats were caged, and the university killed all of them, claiming the stress of the smoke would have affected any data obtained from the animals. All that misery, fear and death for nothing — a total waste.
The National Research Council states that animal models should be replaced as soon as possible. They’re outdated, time consuming and expensive, not to mention harmful to animals and irrelevant to humans. The university should end these experiments immediately, and the NIH should redirect funds to programs and treatments that directly benefit child abuse victims using practical and innovative research techniques such as computer models, testing on human cells and tissues and working with consenting humans. It’s clear that victimless methods are the future of research to alleviate suffering; we will not find answers in the pain and suffering of rats. As a biomedical engineering alum from the university and a strong believer in the humane treatment of animals, I know we can do better.
Charlotte Chaze received her Master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from the university. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.