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Science vs. Culture – Indian Scientists Clash Over Proposed Animal Welfare Law

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With an estimated 5000 research institutions utilizing live animals, India has become a powerhouse in medical and biological research. But there’s a problem: only 1700 of those institutions are in compliance with government registration laws, and only 200 or so have adequate facilities for the proper housing and care of animals.

That’s according to the Animal Welfare Board of India. In a recent Science Insider report *, board vice chairman and chemical engineer S. Chinny Krishna is quoted:

“Unregulated experimentation is rampant. Animals are misused in India, even though many are revered as Gods.”

The proposed Animal Welfare Act of 2011 intends to strengthen the government’s role  through provisions covering all future research in comprehensive effort to prevent animal cruelty in scientific or medical experiments.

But there’s another problem. Many Indian scientists are quite opposed to the new law, asserting that it will hinder valuable research efforts. At September 15 meeting of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) in New Delhi, many attending scientists called for a rewrite for the law claiming that the current draft is too vague and the  penalties for non-compliance too harsh.

Two major complaints involve the definition of ‘animal’ and the definition of ‘large’ used in the proposed reform law. The former proviso (“any living creature other than human being”) does not distinguish between, for example, microbes and vertebrates (and also animals that do not feel pain; see end note), while the latter advises researchers to avoid experiments “on larger animals” (if similar results would be achieved on smaller ones) without defining the upper/lower limits of each size distinction.

Hanuman before Rama
A 17th century painting depicting Hanuman, a general of the vanaras, an ape-like race of forest-dwellers (left, depicted as a large monkey) worshiping Lord Rama and his wife Sita. Lakshmana is also seen in this painting from Smithsonian Institution collection.

Further, the bill would give regulators the authority to ban animal experimentation (including dissections) for educational purposes, including undergraduate medical, pharmacology, and zoology school students. The ban seems to extend to all colleges and universities and even technical trade schools (note: it is not clear why a tech school would need animal experimentation). Violations carry a 1000.00 penalty and up to 3 years in prison. Some proposed changes include even more severe monetary penalties (up to 250,000.00) that are many times what a researcher earns in his/her entire career.

One major critic is cardiologist K. K. Talwar, president of India’s National Academy of Medical Sciences and chair of the Medical Council of India in New Delhi. He is quoted in the same Science Insider article, calling the proposed law  “draconian and unjustified” and criticizing the entire law, stating: [It] “has a clear and implicit agenda of preventing any usage, even legitimate usage of experimental animals.”

Calls for bans of animal experimentation (e.g., chimpanzees, dolphins) in Scientific research have been growing and making news in recent years here in the U.S. These calls usually lead to only modest reform proposals (and some small changes to existing law), but, due to the favorable view by government towards scientific/medical research (public and private), exceptions abound and serious reforms of existing law get tabled and stalled in Congress.

To get more information on current Laboratory animal procedures/best practices, visit the NIH’s OLAW site.

The real ethical battle over animal welfare in scientific research seems to be playing out in India, where an ancient culture that honors animals to the point of worship (believing them to be gods “in disguise”) is running head-long into the emerging and powerful culture of Indian science and medicine.

Author comment/end note:

Most scientists believe the two can co-exists. But a fair resolution comes down to a matter of consensus of values — and then, lots of extra funding to provide for animals welfare in research settings.

Inevitably, arguments will be made that certain provisions for animal welfare may put too great a financial burden on the research facilities.

But laws that directly or indirectly require spending to improve conditions (for animal welfare),  I believe, will save researchers much more money in the long run– from costs due to wasteful, poorly organized labs, health department/board non-compliance and violation fees, and let’s not forget the legal fees from lawsuits filed to stop harmful or unnecessary testing.

End note:

While their are those who would debate to whether some, “lower” animals (like nematode worms) can feel pain, bio-engineers can now “design” or knockout the genes that form parts of the nervous system that carry pain signals, rendering the animal (such as a cow or pig) incapable of feeling pain. Thus, the ethical “guilt” or qualm over hurting animals to provide meat, can be vanquished in good conscience.

While I know some of my vegan and anti-GMO colleagues object to this, to me, it is an example of how technology can be used to mediate between one’s moral culture  and one;s knowledge culture. I see see both scientific pros and ethical cons to genetic manipulation of animals.

But the debate should continue.

* Some source material for this article came from the Scienc Insider article ‘Indian Scientists Blast Proposal to Improve Animal Welfare’, by Pallava Bagla

top photo: Rama ; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 France

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