The application of the 3Rs across Australian universities has gained traction, yet in 2023 we still have so far to go. With large gaps in our reporting of animal use, the animals covered under protective acts, collating national statistics that are useful, and lack of understanding of alternative methods, any attempt to replace animals in education and research still leads to more questions than answers.
In 2020, Victoria alone reported 33,425 animals used for educational objectives. We need to deeply understand the reasons for this, the outcomes achieved through animal use, and the barriers to change, before we can replace animals in education, but this information is hard to come by.
Traditional barriers to the replacement of animals in education are becoming less reasonable. Lack of awareness of the 3Rs principle, lack of knowledge of viable alternative methods, misconceptions about cost and availability of alternatives, and the belief that students are more engaged with this type of hands-on learning, are key drivers identified for why faculties haven’t all made the switch to humane teaching.
In both education and research, the belief that there are few validated alternatives stalls progress. While the adoption of animal use faced little scrutiny in its introduction, the replacement of animals by humane alternative methods has needed solid evidence demonstrating efficacy in achieving the same learning objectives that animal models are believed to achieve. Of course, students graduating with the appropriate skills for their career is vital, however research comparing learning after animal and alternative use have shown equal or better outcomes for students using alternatives. An abundance of resources are now available for humane teaching methods, but the adoption of these is lagging and we need to know why.
Conscientious objection policies across Australian universities are obscure at best. Students can opt out of harmful animal use where possible, and a viable alternative must be provided, but many just say alternatives may not be available so students should reconsider their career choices. It’s disheartening that we could be losing some brilliant minds, who think outside the box to create real-world solutions, because we force them into the traditional practice of animal experimentation. To have no more Andrew Knights, who successfully completed his veterinary studies, albeit after an extensive battle with policy, breaking norms and giving new insights to old problems would be a tragedy for science and animal welfare.
Synthetic cadaver used for teaching
It’s argued that students need this hands-on learning. Subjectively, I have often questioned while in dissection classes whether a crowded laboratory class with students in groups of 3 or more, really achieves the outcomes they’re expected to. This has rarely been tested. We should also consider how many students realistically need these skills in their careers. Norton and Cakitaki (2016) report that life science graduates had the lowest full-time employment rate of any graduate field in 2014 within months of graduation, with 49% of those looking for full-time work finding it. Only half of these were employed in a job that utilised skills from their science degree. We must ask, is teaching dissection to 300+ students per subject really still vital to their career progression?
So why is change so difficult to implement, even in the face of evidence that it is a plausible way to go?
Having been ingrained in biological science potentially since the third century BC1, replacing animals now requires a complete shift in perceptions, and facilities, steeped in tradition. The more ingrained something is in a culture, the more difficult it is to change, and animal use in university culture is no exception. Housing, breeding, purchasing, and use of animals is deeply ingrained in faculty facilities and processes, and biological sciences have just always been taught this way. Though academics I have met through my research are in support of change. So, the main barriers that I can reduce this to then are time and top-down support. Time to understand, learn and implement change, and faculty support with time, funds, and resources.
The reality is simple though – we know more about animal sentience than ever before, and the ethics of utilising animals for our gain, particularly if that gain is merely passing on knowledge we already have, has become more uncomfortable for educators, academics, students and the public. While we slowly adapt to this changing method, animals continue to be bred, killed, or experimented on, so we need to move faster.
- Orlans, F. B. (1993). In the name of science : issues in responsible animal experimentation. New York: Oxford University Press.
Catherine is a science writer from Melbourne with a Master of Applied Science in biology and biomedicine, a Graduate Certificate in Tertiary Education, and a Bachelor of Health Science. She began her PhD in science education, exploring how academics can replace animal models in their biological science classrooms while also encouraging higher-order thinking in their students, but has recently switched this to study a second undergraduate degree in Wildlife and Conservation Biology with a plan to continue her original PhD research once finished in her new studies.
Read HRA’s webpage on humane education