Insisting that animals be used only when the results of experiments have guaranteed benefits for human health is to misunderstand science, even to undermine the drive for scientific knowledge.
Science is rarely as certain or a simple as some expect. It is never possible to know for sure how new knowledge will be used.
Nor is it reasonable to promise that a series of experiments will deliver a particular benefit. If the results were known in advance, the experiment would not be needed.
So the idea that the use of animals in research should be limited exclusively to cases where the investigator can say with confidence that the outcome will produce tangible results is to misunderstand scientific endeavour.
It also stifles scientists’ curiosity; curtailing the quest for knowledge that has taken us to where we are today.
Small steps lead to giant leaps
For example, researchers studying octopuses’ nervous systems decades ago hardly realised their work would be critical to understanding multiple sclerosis in humans. The octopus experts were deepening our understanding of how animals work because they were fascinated by the question.
Science is incremental. Breakthroughs often look from afar like giant leaps but they are in fact just the latest in a series of small steps.
The same goes for the people whose work on the brains of song birds gave us much of our current understanding of the pre-frontal cortex – an area associated with personality and behaviour but also with addiction and psychological disorders.
All of that basic science, conducted 30 years ago, was the first step on the long road that gave us medicines for people with schizophrenia and depression.
Those researchers didn’t know precisely how their work would be used, just like the electronics experts and computer scientists who helped us understand sound had no clue that one day someone from another branch of science would use that information to design a cochlear implant for deaf children.
Most of the animals used in labs right now are for basic research. Guaranteeing a direct human benefit in the short term is impossible.
Some experiments, of course, will not yield results even in the long term. That too is part of how science works.
Just as most successful entrepreneurs have failed ventures behind them, there are few scientists who can’t think back to a wasted weekend in the lab where a promising line of inquiry came to naught.
Science is imperfect and unpredictable. Long may it remain so.