Why we need animal research
A major function of the Research Defence Society is to explain and thereby defend animal experimentation. But why is it necessary to explain, and even more necessary to defend, and from whom? I take the practical and cynical view that whatever you do or don't do leads to the converse. If you experiment on animals there will be others who will practise "antivivisection". And no doubt if the antivivisectionists had been first in the field this annual lecture would have been given by an antivivisectionist in answer to the “Anti-Antivivisectionist Society". People either hunt foxes or fox hunters, and both groups equally enjoy the chase. There is a level at which such symbiotic antagonism runs pretty comfortably, but there are times when the debate runs at a different level. The great antivivisection campaigns of a century ago provide one example. Today we have another, with animal experimentation and biomedical research coming in for an unprecedented range of review and attack; even physical attack.
Biomedical research is being buffeted by a movement with an immense and unexpected new power which derives from three factors. First, the extraordinary range of people involved—from those whose "scrupulous" ethics lead them 10 the most unscrupulous of deeds; to the new consumerist groups whose excessive demands are greatly disturbing the production and use of new drugs; to the very small group of deeply concerned intellectuals and scientists, some of whose disaffection with technology is creating a neo-Luddite movement. Second, the immense new power of the instruments of public persuasion, the press and television, coupled with their abdication from the role of information and education for entertainment and triviality. Third, and perhaps most significant, the new limb of the system, the newly found ability of the public to influence both legislation and its practice.
In the past our attitude has been to reply factually and gently to the grosser allegations—this was easily done because they were almost invariably wrong—but to avoid public debate of the real issues. Good sense, it was felt, would quietly prevail among those who made or administered our laws; and public discussion is usually misconstrued anyway—with us, unlike the entertainment industry, any news is bad news. But recent experience both in theUnited Kingdomand theUnited Statesshows that this quietist approach is no longer valid. Pressure groups can change laws and their practice and so we now have no alternative but to carry on the debate in public and to try and make its nature clear. I therefore propose to analyse the role of animal research for science and safety as seen by a clinical scientist and to contrast this with the self-indulgent sentimentality of those who want us to do less on the one hand and the muddled and shameless consumerism of those who want us to do more on the other.
Purpose as well as need are often considered as symbols in the equation from which the index of ethical acceptability is derived. So in examining the ethical case against animal experiments we should begin by asking: what are the experimenter's motives? I think we have been less than honest with ourselves and the public about our real motives. The scientist is not powered by the sentiment of the soap opera: he is driven by the twin motives of curiosity and reward, and, of these, curiosity is the most persuasive. We are curious, therefore we experiment. Desire to cure disease is really a curiosity about the disease process or the sublimated motive of reward— because fame and fortune are greater for applied research. The motive of reward does not necessarily lead to bad things any more than good motives necessarily lead to good things: recall the dreadful consequences of high-sounding political and religious beliefs throughout the centuries. Of course scientists wish humanity well and will occasionally even work for us well being, but that well-being is not and never can be our true motive, And that tips us siring hi into the ethical cauldron. The supposed motive of easing suffering may be acceptable, but can the real motives of curiosity and reward balance the deaths of millions of animals?
What is the ethical debate on animal experimentation? In preparing this lecture I was looking forward to coming to grips with these ethical arguments, but was greatly disappointed. Instead of an informed ethical and logical case I found a pot-pourri of sentiment and false logic steeped in the declamatory rhetoric of the silent movies. There arc the Aunt Sallys about whether animals can feel pain (of course they can) but then you can score points about where you should draw the line-—"because we never can tell"—right down through the vegetable kingdom. There are the many arguments which depend upon the fact of biological evolution, the basis of which is an arbitrary viewpoint to which words like "ethics" or "morals" are attached A good example is the often quoted paper by K D Ryder on "Speciesism, the ethics of vivisection". The peak of the argument is that since all animals are on the same “biological continuum”, we should also be on the same “moral continuum” and we therefore shouldn’t kill animals. You will notice Ryder doesn’t reach the logical conclusion that man should kill, cat, and torture other species—watch your pet cat play with a mouse or bird it has caught—because it is the ethic of much of the rest of the "continuum".
Then there is the highly personalised ethic of those-majority—who take moral values as absolute in theory relative in practice. Thus Miss Brigid Brophy considers it wrong to kill animals, but fine if they arc going to kill you. Others would consider it in order for you to kill them to prevent a third party (such as disease) from killing you, or you were hungry. But it is held to be unethical to kill for mental curiosity as with most experiments, or what is called vanity as with the development of cosmetics. So you can kill to support your crude bodily needs, but not for your interests and feelings. People with absolute and spiritual notion morality have a very relative and earthy approach to its application.
The concept and practice of ethics and morality lead us to define ethics not as anything absolute but as the rule for current expediency. Because of the relative stability of modes of behaviour in a single generation we fool ourselves into believing these principles or generalisations are stable for all time. Yet the ethical and moral precepts which greatly concerned our attitudes and practice a century ago to chain workers, women, and inhabitants of our colonies would hardly be readable, let alone credible, today. Just look within our own time at the “moral principles” that have simply vanished because of the cure of venereal disease and because of the contraceptive pill. There is no grand, immutable outside law of morality and you do not further the argument by saying something is or isn't ethical or moral. The antivivisectionist uses the word "ethical" like others use words with three fewer letters.
The other approach is the pseudo-logical and it goes as follows. We are more intelligent, superior, or at any rate more successful than other species but this does not give us the right to experiment on them. Hence it is wrong to experiment on animals. But the converse of having the right is not that we do not have a right. We have no right to travel to the moon, but that does not mean that we must not go there. It is not a question of whether or not we have the right to experiment; of course we haven't. The question is whether we have no right to experiment, and likewise of course we haven't. There is no divine right to experiment, but nor is there a. human right to prevent it; nature is neutral. The moral and logical case against animal experimentation does not exist. In each and every case it is sentiment masquerading in moral or logical garb.
And now we come to what I consider the real basis of the argument, human sentiment. There is no shame in this argument: I believe that human sentiment is an adequate instrument of human behaviour; it is what would prevent me from doing certain experiments on animals. I feel—note feel, not think—that some things are unjustified because I led that if society does things which it doesn't feel is right it will become depraved and uncivilised and therefore abhorrent to me and harmful to itself. But I do not think this vital need for a humane level of sentiency is either absolute or definable; individuals of each time in history and place in society must define it for themselves. So let us take the sentimental and personal nature of the argument more honestly. The feeling of Miss Brophy that a civilised society should be able to tolerate the increased number of human deaths which might result from reducing the number of animal experiments may not be shared by the families of the children dying of disease. The argument is personal and one of feeling. The antivivisectionist says scientists should not play God. I agree: I cannot accept a role so brutal.
The antivivisectionist is of course entitled to his own views, but if he wishes others to take him seriously he must demonstrate that he takes his arguments seriously himself. If killing animals for the livelihood or curiosity of the experimenter is wrong, so it is for the hobby of eating them. If killing animals for medical research is wrong, so it is to have medicines which were developed through such research and antivivisectionists should not accept modern diagnostic and therapeutic medicine. Antivivisectionists are animal lovers and often keep pets. But these are mostly cats and dogs which are carnivores and by increasing their number artificially we have to kill off greater numbers of other animals for their food: remember the scandal a few years ago over the massacre of kangaroos for our pet food. Indeed this ostensibly trivial issue of pets highlights one of the unpleasant and dishonest features of the antivivisectionist's posture that their campaign is fired not so much by reason or
morals, however misguided, but by a Disneyish anthropomorphism, much of it for cats and dogs. The illustrations in most of their publications arc overwhelmingly concerned with these animals, whereas experiments are mostly done on their natural prey, rats and mice.
I must stress again that human sentiency, as opposed to sentimental indulgence is a valid approach. The humane feeling of animal experimenters and not a spurious moral or rational sense does and will continue to maintain the care and welfare of our animals. But human sentiency must be realistic. Biological life has evolved integrally. Animal and vegetable species live off one another; life and death maintain one another.
Having talked to many people, read the horrendous pres' accounts, and seen the lurid television pictures, I have discovered that much of the present revulsion against animal experimentation springs from the allegation that most animal experiments are not done for medical purposes. As Ena Kendall wrote in The Observer, of June 13, 1976: "Perhaps as many as two thirds of animal experiments are not in the cause of medical research and healing, but to monitor commercial products, from flavourings to cosmetics, from the coating on wrapping paper to fire extinguisher fluids". The seriousness of that allegation was strengthened and anxieties encouraged when it was taken up directly by The Lancet and by implication by New Scientist. In turn, by carrying the authoritative quotations from these journals, the antivivisectionist campaign had a great boost.
But my own knowledge of laboratories in the UKsuggested that these figures just did not make sense. So where did they come from? I rang the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Vivisection (since their annual pictorial review for 1977 makes great capital out of these figures) and their director Mr Holland told me he had got them from the analysis of Mr R D. Ryder. The secretary of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (the one that frequently puts a horror ad in The Guardian) was persistently unavailable despite six telephone calls and one letter. The editor of The Lancet wasn't sure where the figures came from but would look into it. Back came a slightly embarrassed phone call: the source was Mr R. D. Ryder and the article by Miss Ena Kendall in The Observer, and no, they had not checked the figures for themselves.
So I rang Miss Kendall: she had got the figures from her own researches (mostly by what she called "a process of exclusion"), a Mr Holland about whom I already knew and—guess who—Mr Ryder.
But my friends remained convinced that the figures were right, and they referred me to the correspondence and editorial comment in New Scientist. So I rang the editor of New Scientist and, would you believe it, the core of his information had also come from Mr Ryder.
So where did Mr Ryder get the figures? At the time he produced them detailed figures were not available, for the simple reason that the Home Office was not then asking for them. But the Home Office summary of animal licensees' annual returns were published. They showed that less than one third of all experiments were clearly medical but there was little information about the remainder. Had Ryder made the unfortunate mistake of assuming these two thirds were non-medical?
I phoned Mr Ryder. He was most helpful and he confirmed that his data source was the Home Office figures. But he pointed out that he had never said that less than one third of animal experiments were for medical purposes: what he actually had said was, "In other words, less than one third of all licensed experiments on living animals can be seen to be medical. Figure 3 illustrates the steady decline over the years in research which is obviously medical.' (R. D. Ryder, Victims of Science, 1975, p. 32, with my italics). Mr Ryder claimed he had been misquoted repeatedly. To put the record right I therefore give you his exact words, this lime from "Scientific Cruelty for Commercial Profit" (1974): "As far as we are allowed to know therefore, when a peer or a politician, a scientist or a businessman stands up and claims to justify vivisection on the grounds that it is medically necessary he may be speaking for less than one experiment in three." Again, he concludes a section from the same article with this: "So if most research medical, then what is it?" I am quite clear what Ryder actually said and I am sure it will be equally clear to you. I feel sure Mr Ryder will be quoted with much, much greater care in future.
What are the facts? I am most grateful to the Home Office for allowing me to quote from its recent study—only a pilot, but the 1.4 per cent sample of more than 86,000 experiments is large enough to be representative—which uses the new form for animal experiment returns. It shows that over 75 per cent of experiments were directly concerned with medical research and drugs, and about 90 percent of the remainder was basic research closely related to medical problems, e.g. research on bacteria, viruses, tissue transplantation and repair. Very few experiments were concerned with skin and eve irritation, and the proportion concerned with cosmetics was too small to be defined. Obviously the exact size of the smaller figures will have to await the full returns next year but already it seems likely that at the very most cosmetics, toiletries and so forth will account for no more than 1 or 2 per cent of the total: very different from the alleged two thirds. In addition, the vast majority of all experiments are done on rats and mice and about 1 per cent on cats and dogs. Stressful procedures were carried out in fewer than 2 per cent of the reported animal experiments.
In short, the antivivisectionist case is an utter shambles. Its emotive appeal is based on the allegation that most experiments arc done not for medical research but for cosmetics and the like, and the implication that very many are painful and done on cats and dogs, whereas in fact only a few per cent fall into these categories. One has to be very careful about the allegations of the antivivisectionists; their eyes are too blurred by the blood of the chase.
The public has little understanding about animal research and it is grotesquely misinformed by the press and television. Health and biology make easy gory entertainment and some procedures read so horribly. Let me describe what I mean. "One of the animals is grabbed from where they are standing huddled in a group. It is held firmly because there is so much struggling and a strong electric current is applied to its head. While the animal is stunned in this way an incision is made in its neck and the blood is collected or allowed to flow away—depending on the requirements. When the animal has stopped jerking and gasping a large incision is made in its abdomen . . ." This sounds horrible and it is the sort of copy that makes bad publicity. The public reading this would be disgusted but is it fair? What I have given you is not the description of an experiment but a factual account of killing pigs for food, and in a particularly good abattoir I have visited. The media makes the ordinary look extraordinary, and the extraordinary look commonplace. One cannot but feel that journalists, like politicians, push issues not so much because of the effects these issues may have as the effects these issues can be made to have. Because of the public interest, the press does have an important and responsible role, and we must persuade them to return to it.
Antivivisectionists talk much about alternative methods to animal research and the idea is fostered that if we scientists were not so hidebound we could replace animal experiments by in vitro methods, such as cell culture. This is totally impossible. To expect to understand the complexity of an animal's behaviour from a study of a few of its cells is as absurd as to expect an understanding of the behaviour in a gale of a cluster of cooling towers (sited in a particular locality) by blowing on the concrete slabs from which they are made. Scientists are very down to earth people and they are always on the lookout for simple in vitro methods but their use is likely to remain so small that they are quite irrelevant to the main issue. So let us once and for all leave the clouds of alternative mythology.
The legislation is said to be inadequate in intent and too lax in operation: thus does the Houghton group's submission to the Home Secretary regret that "There is no public or Parliamentary control over what experimenters are doing (or indeed whether some activities are 'experiments' at all)".
It is incredible that members of our society can have such faith in the powers of central administration of science or that in the light of the Lysenko affair they would wish it to have such power. Nor can the idea be taken seriously that the public can really tell the scientist which of his experiments are or aren't worth doing in any detailed sense, though an informed public opinion can and should influence the scientist. Of course many experiments are scientifically awful both in concept and execution—most often I believe in the generally acceptable field of drugs and human disease, rather than "basic" research—but you cannot legislate stupidity out of the laboratory any more than you can legislate it out of the legislature. You cannot even be sure of recognising it. How many now classical pieces of science were thought to be nonsense at the time?
The Houghton group differentiates "bona fide medical research", which it believes is ethically kosher, from fundamental animal research, which has now (like some shameful academic disease) "spread into . . . university departments of psychology, zoology, ecology ..." I can find no "ethical" or logical justification for this attitude. Basic research on animals does not have to be justified in relationship to disease or other practical outcome. It is justified in its own right as good or bad research. Moreover it must be pointed out that little of the most "bona fide" of medical research
would ever have got off the ground without the understanding and techniques discovered by the basic scientists.
Note, too, the serious implications of the Houghton group's proposal to modify the all important wording of the 1876 Act, which would outlaw all but applied research— and so destroy biological science. Of course since the group was powered by a statistic we now know to be wrong it may well wish to modify this and other aspects of its memorandum. But I must mention with regret that emphasis has been placed on the authority of the group through the undoubted eminence of Lord Platt. The debate must rest upon facts, not personal authority.
The most extraordinary reason I have seen for changing the legislation is that it has been going for a hundred years and so must need altering. Does this not argue to the contrary—that the laws have been particularly successful? And is there really evidence that the Cruelty to Animals Act is too lax in operation? I have seen none. That some may have evaded the law is no more evidence for need of change than is the existence of burglars. The scientist may find little in the general case against animal experimentation but this does not absolve him from the considerate treatment of animals: indeed his professional need to control his experiments by keeping the animals unstressed ensures this treatment. There are the few experiments where stress or pain are deliberately induced. I find some of these acceptable. Others I find distasteful and would not do; but I would not stop them by legislation. The evolution of a code of practice by the scientists themselves, through their journals and societies and through informed public opinion, is a much safer mechanism. Since, in any case, there is no evidence that much slips through the legislative net I see no reason for change, particularly since the price of legislating so that nothing can slip through the net is to make it so solid that it becomes unworkable as a net. If you policed the country so as to prevent all crime, life for the innocent citizen would be intolerable. Life is imperfect and that is why the law of law-making is reasonableness, not perfection. The present law is reasonable and so are those concerned with it. Let us not tamper with it.
The historical role of the RDS has been the defence of animal experimentation from the objections of those who disapprove of it. I think there is a new and even more important role for the RDS—the defence of research from a much wider range of destructive influences. Biomedical research in general and drug research in particular are being stifled by the absurd and restrictive demands for more and more experiments on the one hand with a greater trivialisation and supervision of their content on the other. I fear that the end result of these pressures will be that the quality of medical and basic research, and especially the rate of introduction of new drugs, will decline.
Ethical committees arose as a public relations exercise to allay anxiety about what were to my mind a few examples of abuse, but like all bureaucratic structures they took on a life of their own and they are now a trap to much that is worth while in research. They promote the trivial and inhibit the original. But this theme demands much greater expansion: I must return to it at a later date. However, the introduction of new drug legislation and the hardening of public opinion had a firmer basis but over-reaction has now become the main danger to sensible research. After thalidomide, and with the increasing awareness of the toxic effects of drugs, regulation piled on regulation and their practice begat more practice. The number of different laws in different countries is such that the development of a drug is almost as much a legal as a scientific problem. How will the new EEC regulations affect us? Will the new FDA doubts about laboratories—which will entail their being "policed" by non-scientists in future—also have to apply to our pharmaceutical industry if we wish to export drugs to theUS? The increased cost of research will be phenomenal. ICI now tests 6,000 new compounds a year with a success rate of one compound in 15,000. This gives them one good new drug every two and a half years. They plan to spend £500 million in the next ten years, so you can see the price of success. The time to develop a drug is now eight to ten years. This is why the number of new drugs being produced and introduced has begun to decrease. There is now a serious danger of too few drugs and the reason is over-legislation and over-testing.
The test requirements for the prediction of toxicity have become irrelevant and absurd. You can and must first delineate general properties and toxicities in animals but you cannot from this predict the total properties of a drug in man. The FDA's insistence that materials shouldn't produce cancer in animals if they are to be used in man is increasingly absurd. Anything seems to produce cancer in some animals. Indeed I am proposing to use this fact to support our department in these times of financial hardship. I propose to lake some popular articles of diet (Coca-Cola, Schweppes or maybe Newcastle Brown), and by searching out the appropriate animal, mode of administration, and the rest, I am quite sure I'll manage to produce a cancer
without too much effort. I'll then send the dossier to the president of the company (with of course a duplicate to my own lawyer in case I accidentally fall ill) and I am sure our departmental problems will be solved; we'll be funded in perpetuity.
Just think of the saccharine fiasco, or the nitroloacetic acid farce. In the mid 1960s nitroloacetic acid, a very cheap and very satisfactory alternative to phosphorus compounds, was brought out for use in detergents. It was so non-toxic you could give as much as 5,000 mg per kg to animals. Consequently, ridiculous doses were used for the carcinogenicity tests—almost a million times those which would occur in life. Of course cancers were produced but those cancers were picked up only because the material was so non-toxic; had it been more toxic it would have got past the tests. Another example is the Ames test of mutagenicity. We have used topical preparations of both dithranol and tar for millions of patient years and we can be sure they do not produce skin cancer. So for fun I asked Bryn Bridges to look at them. Dithranol passed the Ames test but the tar preparation we use as an ointment was mutagenic. How many potentially useful drugs are being blackballed by useless tests? How I wish we could find alternatives to "alternative methods".
Why has drug research been driven to this level of absurdity? It is not just administrators' mania or political perversity. A new feature of our democracy is the political response to public pressure, magnified in the case of drugs by a press and television ever hungry for a bad story. The β-blocker practolol was wonderfully useful because its effects are so localised to the heart. Vast numbers of patients were treated with it and the saving and the saving and easing of life was enormous. Then a few years ago after a report in the British Medical Journal about some odd new rashes which were different from natural disease and from other drug rashes, evidence of more general toxicity began to build up. You know the story from then on, when the drug was withdrawn.
I am proud of my colleagues who recognised this as early as they did. But in asking, and rightly so, why the toxicity had taken so long to be recognised, The Observer felt otherwise: "These rashes do not, despite their severity, appear to have been thought worthy of another warning, either, by the Newcastle team to the BMJ" Does the press think that you have to write to the medical journals at weekly intervals repeating the same findings? The biased accounts in the media served to encourage a most ill-informed outcry about the drug, and although it appears clear that ICI were under no legal obligation to compensate (because the effects of the drug could not have been, and still could not be, predicted), ICI have in fact compensated substantially. ICI acted very correctly throughout, and at great financial loss, but their treatment by the media was shabby; and so was the media's treatment of the real issues.
Even with the toxic effects, terrible though they were for some, the drug was probably doing far more good than harm in that more people were benefiting than otherwise. I am amazed that ICI have not yet been taken to law for taking a useful drug off the market. The media almost invariably present a distorted picture. The danger of this is now acute since public opinion is now so powerful.
The apricot pip extract for cancer treatment illustrates this new power. The extract was banned by the FDA in theUnited Statesbecause it had not been studied adequately for human administration. Despite this legal ban public pressure induced state after state to pass legislation to allow its use even though it was shown to be totally without beneficial effect. So we reach the curious situation in which the public wants more and more drug testing, with more restrictive laws, yet at the same time it wants to reserve the right to ignore those laws and use quack remedies. The illogical uninformed irrelevance of the public attitude is appalling, and the unwillingness and inability of the legislature to do other than go along with this is depressing. The danger is that as legislation becomes increasingly excessive and stupid and as fewer drugs are produced in consequence, and as their inevitable side effects are publicised, there will be an even greater demand for unconventional medicine. The pressure will be for tighter and tighter legislation on the scientist and his products, with looser and looser surveillance of the quack remedy. The lay public and press insists on impossibly high standards of cancer screening at the same time as it insists that we waste time, money and manpower investigating treatments such as the notorious Issels cancer cure; The system will break at both ends, and signs of the pressure are already apparent.
To return to the problem of drug toxicity, it is estimated that had practolol toxicity been detectable in the experimental animal, it would have needed 50-100,000 animal experiments to pick it up. This cannot be the answer to the prediction of drug toxicity. The public has to accept that man is the inevitable test animal: after a drug has been evolved and its general toxicity and biological properties established by animal experiments, its beneficial and toxic effects have to be screened in man. The public has to be made to understand that drug treatment is not without risk and in this respect is no different from surgery. The public accepts the risk for surgery because the tradition of expectancy has always been there; we are all used to the handsome teledrama surgeon saying the risks are high and the chances hopeless but that he must operate. The public must be made to understand that the balance of risks with drug treatment is precisely the same. A drug simply offers a lesser risk for a greater one. We have still not learned the real lesson of practolol, (or of thalidomide before it) and that is the utter inevitability of unpredicted and unpredictable new problems.
If the public continues to insist on the impossibility of total innocuousness we will not be able to produce new drugs. Do we have to wait until we run short of new antibiotics and pneumonia returns before understanding the problem? This is why I think the RDS has a new role, a role far more important than its old battles against the antivivisectionists, and it is a role which I hope the press and television will join in a constructive way.
There are many possible solutions. My own is for limited animal testing to exclude major toxicity (I would scrap the many useless animal tests) and then straight on to limned drug testing in man in a closely supervised group: drug usage is then increased gradually until the limits of toxicity and benefit can be ascertained. I have called this the Ripple method (it is important to give names because people are more at home with names than concepts): it is based on the method used very successfully by the detergent industry which launch their products from a small test panel closely observed, to a small locality closely observed, to a region, and so on. The ripple of usage is allowed to move out through the public only if all is well. Detergents are much easier than drugs, but the ripple principle of monitored release is just the same.
We must rationalise the production and testing of drugs so that they become less costly and more can be developed. And we must also stop the production of senseless and useless drugs, and the introduction of "me too" drugs that are just copies of those we already have. Of course we must continue to improve the action of drugs by molecular substitution but if the compounds resulting from this roulette show no advantage in preliminary human trials, they should not be developed and promoted just to recoup production and development costs. With a more controlled introduction of new drugs, these useless drugs will have to go anyway because we won't have enough time to test them. Far too much time is already spent by clinicians on unnecessary trials of unnecessary drugs and far too much money is spent on their promotion.
And here we come to another point for public debate: the profits of the pharmaceutical industry. The pharmaceutical industry is in fact not particularly profitable: it gives a poor return on capital. That is the only satisfactory criterion of drug profits, and they are not high. The absurd statistic so loved by the press—that a particular pill is sold at a thousand or a million times the cost of the materials has nothing whatsoever to do with the costs of development and the like.
The media will have to change their attitude very profoundly. Some six or so years ago I did a session as a television doctor. I had written scripts on serious subjects like the absurdity of training more doctors rather than medical technicians, of the crisis of priorities in medicine, the accumulation of genetic disorders because of treatment, the treatment of the hopeless and aged, the conflict of high technology and the individual ethic in medicine and so on. Each week at the recording session I was fobbed off. There was no- time to do one this week, perhaps next. It was clear that the old trusties—cardiac transplants and the like—were preferred. I had no success convincing the BBC then. They might be more receptive now.
But if researchers are to help get this new message across to the public, they will have to be a lot more,honest about themselves. We have been very bad at being ourselves in public: we have caused confusion by being less than truthful about the motives of researchers, we have concealed the triviality of much of our work, we' always play along with the media's penchant for "breakthroughs". We have confused the public which sees research and drug usage as excessively logical because we have presented them with the lie that we art logical about our research.
It has already rebounded on us: thus patients' organisations think it would be a good idea if the use of drugs were restricted to certain diseases, although we have evolved some of the most useful drugs almost by accident, unconventional use, or the application of a totally false premise. A few years back when we were trying to define the sebotrophic hormone which controls sebum production in the hairy mammal the first really definitive experiment happened by chance, when we took out the posterior lobe of the pituitary by mistake, and showed that the sebum secretion decreased almost as much as when we took the whole pituitary out. From that chance observation we were able very quickly to show that the unknown hormone was the melanocyte-stimulating hormone which had taken over a new role when rapid adaptive changes in skin colour were made pointless by the development of hair. The hair was developed to prevent heat loss and the new role of the hormone was to produce sebum (grease) which coated the hair so that it was not easily wetted; for wet hair is not a very good insulator. When we wrote the paper for Nature, we explained how we stumbled on the experiment by chance, but the editor cut it out and put in a standard logical introduction. This sort of logical fiction helps to confuse: we, as well as the press, must give up romanticising and trivialising. Consider the hours of television time and forests of paper spent on the consequence of Victor the giraffe's sexual incompetence, and how little when he was hoisted up and died. Would the public not be interested in the problems of maintaining a blood supply to a head and leg so far apart? If it cannot cope with that it certainly cannot cope with the problems of research and drugs on which it already gives its opinion. I think we should launch a forum of the press, of television and of scientists—and why not an antivivisectionist and a representative of those who want us to do far more animal experiments, for balance? The situation is too serious for the rhetoric of debate alone. We must act now or the great edifice of biological and biomedical research will come crashing down. Perhaps this is the new role of the RDS.
Of course the problems of research and drugs that we have been discussing are only some of the many problems of modern technology. Society has opened Bluebeard's last door and we have entered the final chamber of knowledge: if we are going to get out alive we are going to have to learn to use the knowledge. Modern knowledge and technology are too complex to be powered by an outdated ethic, a blinkered understanding and a wet sentimentality.
Last edited: 26 May 2015 11:36