We should talk about animal testing
On 13 February 2022, everyone with the right to vote in Switzerland will vote on a popular initiative that would introduce a blanket ban on all animal testing. This initiative would have a huge and immediate effect on ETH Zurich and on Switzerland as a research location. That’s why it is important that we look closely and carefully at the topic of animal testing before the vote takes place. To me, it’s clear that there are a lot of good reasons not to ban animal testing – I’ve already discussed these in detail here on the Zukunftsblog (A ban would be a setback, Animal experiments still play a key role).
That’s why I would now like to focus on how we should talk about the complex issue of animal testing.
Discourse helps us move forward
Society is constantly changing when it comes to how we approach our environment. I believe that the increased attention paid to animal welfare is also a positive societal development. Many people are reducing how much meat they eat or avoiding it altogether, so that less livestock is needed. Researchers are a part of wider society and this discourse does not simply pass them by; they are also very interested in greater environmental awareness and are concerned about animal welfare.
Scientists focus on generating knowledge and solving problems. Medical research would not be able to manage without animal testing, but societal discourse on animal experiments is very useful as it drives research to develop further in this area. In recent years, we have made huge progress with the principles of the 3Rs (replace, reduce, refine). Here’s just one example: colleagues at the University of Bern have successfully cultivated respiratory cells in such a way that their model for respiratory infectious diseases such as Covid-19 can replace certain experiments that would otherwise require animals.[i] Intensive 3R research is science’s specific contribution to animal welfare when it comes to animal testing, and we place great emphasis on this – thus, research is also an essential part of the solution.
Hindering scientific knowledge?
When scientific topics are discussed in society and the political sphere, it’s usually about the results of research. Climate change and the coronavirus pandemic show us how difficult these debates can sometimes be, and that in certain circumstances, it can take a long time for scientific findings to make their way into society and be widely accepted. When it comes to established medications, people often forget the animal testing that was crucial for their success and the long period they often spent in the pipeline.
However, the debate sparked by the initiative has a very different quality. A ban on animal testing would strike at the core of research. The initiative wants to dictate how research can be conducted in Switzerland. That would essentially render entire research fields in medicine and the life sciences impossible. The prohibition of a central scientific approach – which animal testing is – means deliberately hindering new scientific insights. It would be like telling a climate researcher that they are no longer allowed to run computer simulations because they use too much energy. Research never takes place in a vacuum – it needs infrastructure and resources. And yes, some research requires lab animals – some people may not like that, but simply ignoring this reality does not solve any problems.
Fair and fact-based
I understand very well that animal testing is a very emotional topic. Nevertheless, we need a fair and fact-based discussion in our country. Opponents of animal testing claim that 99 percent of the results of animal testing do not lead to anything and cannot be applied to people – that is simply incorrect. The countless medications that have been developed thanks only to animal testing prove the opposite. We must discuss the arguments from both sides, but these must be based on facts. There is no room for incorrect information here.
The fact that researchers today who comment on climate change or coronavirus receive serious threats to life and limb is unacceptable. Researchers who explain in the weeks leading up to the vote why they conduct animal experiments and why these are necessary must be able to express themselves freely and without fear in our social and political discourse. They have a right to be heard. I believe the people who launched the initiative have a duty to ensure this.
As Vice President for Research at ETH Zurich, I am convinced that we will continue to need animal testing in research in the future. However, I assure you that regardless of the result of this initiative and of our own accord, we will do everything we can to reduce, replace and refine animal testing in line with our new level of knowledge through further research in the 3Rs.
The blog post also appears in the NZZ.