Q & A with Dr. Aysha Akhtar, author of the Huffington Post series on the use of animals in research
February 17, 2014
As you may know, many of my recent Science First
e-blasts have centered on the series of compelling articles written by Dr. Aysha Akhtar for the Huffington Post
. Dr. Akhtar is a double Board-certified neurologist and public health specialist and is the author of “Animals and Public Health: Why Treating Animals Better is Critical to Human Welfare.” Dr. Akhtar’s articles have given readers special insight into the complex and controversial topic of the use of animals in science. She delves into important issues explaining why animal experimentation is flawed and why it is essential to study human health and disease in more human-relevant systems -- points that NAVS has long advocated. This week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Akhtar about her work. Below are questions and answers from our interview – I hope you enjoy reading it!
Q. What inspired you to get involved in animal welfare issues?
-Dr. Pam Osenkowski, NAVS Director of Science Programs
My parents have always been so kind to everyone to the point that my father would hire people who were down on their luck to do work on our house even when he knew they would not do a good job- he just wanted to help others. They taught me that kindness. And to my family, there were no boundaries on that kindness. As a child, I was, on one hand, always defending other kids who were bullied (to the point of getting into rumbling physical fights with obnoxious boys!) and also trying to nurse orphaned and sick animals back to health. To me, an individual in need was an individual in need- it did not matter if that individual was human or not.
But it was not until High School that I really considered the animals beyond those who crossed my immediate path. It was then that I became aware of the larger issues of cruelty toward animals.
I love biology and the sciences and I loved my biology class until the day my classmates and I were supposed to dissect frogs. You see for the past few days in class, the frogs were alive. We were examining how they move, jump, and other things, and they were just these adorable little creatures. Then one day, I walked into class and found a jar holding our now-dead frogs on each desk.
The fact that the day before, my classmates and I were enjoying these living creatures and then the next day we were to then see them merely as specimens for dissection was jarring for me. I learned that my teacher killed the frogs by scrambling their brains and I started to question their use. Since then I increasingly questioned and examined the use of animals for all purposes in experimentation. I have come to the conclusion that not only is animal experimentation not good for animals, but it’s also not good for humans. Because it is so unreliable and fails to accurately predict human outcomes, experimentation on animals needs to be replaced with better methods. Animal experimentation is simply outdated. Q. Your Huffington Post series has been very effective in educating the public about issues involving research animals. What kind of feedback have you received about your series?
Thanks. I have received mostly very positive feedback. I know that many animal advocates don’t feel very confident to speak about animal experimentation issues. The subject can be intimidating for many (it was intimidating for me for a long time!). So I wanted to help people understand the issue and become more confident to speak about it by really distilling the problems with animal experimentation in terms most people can comprehend. I don’t know if I reached that goal, but the feedback I have been getting suggests that I am getting closer to it.
I have also received some negative feedback by those who are convinced that animal experimentation is ethical and necessary. I even saw that the Senior Editor of Nature tweeted a rather nasty comment about one of my articles. He was not able to dispute my argument, but just basically stated that it was “delusional”. This is really telling. I see this as evidence that there are those who will defend animal experimentation no matter how much the evidence points to it being outdated. They will defend it to the death (no pun intended). Q. What challenges have you faced as an animal advocate? How do you respond to those that are critical of your stance on the use of animals in research? From whom do you receive most resistance?
I suppose I face the same challenges as anyone who is trying to change the status quo, no matter the issue. Humans, by nature, don’t like change. Even if the change is good for us, there will always be people who will resist it (its been a losing battle for me to try to get my husband to change just enough to help make the bed!)
I work side by side with many people who are otherwise intelligent and thoughtful, but they have this collective scientific and ethical blind spot when it comes to critically examining animal experimentation. They are among the folks who put up the most resistance. They are, I think, fearful of change. Their careers and reputation are based on animal experiments. I think they don’t want to examine the issue because that will force them to re-examine what their careers have been built on. And no one likes turning the mirror onto themselves.
Fortunately, there are enough people who embrace change. Americans really do embrace a can-do, positive attitude and that is to our benefit. Those who defend animal experimentation are the pessimists and the naysayers. These folks don’t represent science at its best.
When people try to argue against my position on animal experimentation, I ask them this: where do you think our tax dollars should go? To the people who say they can’t do away with animal experimentation and find better methods to study human illnesses? Or to the people who say they can and will? Do you want your money spent on the pessimists or on the Steve Jobs in the world? The latter are the folks who represent science at its best. Q. The scientific community recently recognized that the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research is no longer necessary in most instances. Do you think they will reach that conclusion with any other species of animals soon? If so, which?
Unfortunately, I don’t think we will see any kind of sweeping change like this for any other species any time soon. In the case with chimpanzees, the U.S. really just had to follow what most other countries have already done. With any other species, the U.S. would have to lead the way and I don’t have enough faith that there are enough people in our government who will lead this kind of change at this time. But I still keep my fingers crossed!Q. 2013 marked a big year for animals in research, as the U.S. significantly reduced the use of chimpanzees in research and the European Union, Israel and India introduced bans on animal testing for cosmetics products and ingredients. What do you think the next big advance will be for research animals? What can people do to facilitate that?
It was an exciting year! I can’t predict the next single advance that will occur, but I will say this: the tide is really starting to turn on this issue. The most recent Gallup poll found that the public is increasingly opposed to animal experimentation- and not just for cosmetics testing or for training- but for “medical testing”. The greatest change has been among young people. Now, 53% of Americans aged between age 18 and 34 are opposed to “medical testing on animals”. That’s huge! I suspect that within five years, the majority of Americans, regardless of age, will be opposed to animal experimentation.
We need to make sure we don’t lose this momentum. It’s more important now, than ever before, to keep this issue in the spotlight and to discuss it with our friends and family. We also need to reframe our message. We need to find the values that resonate most with the public and reframe our position through those values. We can easily do this- we have the higher moral and scientific ground. For example, many people don’t like big government wasting their money. How many experiments on animals can we immediately show that are a waste of taxpayer dollars? This, we can easily do. Q. NAVS strongly believes that encouraging young scientists to pursue innovative scientific endeavors that do not harm animals is a critical investment in the future of scientific research. What can be done to educate young scientists about the scientific and ethical issues regarding animal research? What could be effective ways to inform them about the issue?
I am meeting many young scientists who don’t want to experiment on animals but are feeling the pressure to do so in order to obtain their doctorates. That is so wrong! We need the most compassionate people pursuing the sciences and the education system is unfortunately just discouraging these people.
I think, first and probably most important of all, young people who feel alone while trying to pursue their education without harming animals should have a group or individuals that they can just speak with. They need to be able to connect with people who can give them encouragement. I know how lonely it can be. So I offer to anyone who just even wants to chat, receive some words of encouragement, or to even just vent, to reach out to me. I love speaking with young scientists and if you are one and are reading this, please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
or though my website www.ayshaakhtar.com
. [You can also follow Dr. Akhtar on Twitter @DrAyshaAkhtar or Facebook
As far as reaching out to other students, here are some suggestions:
1. There needs to be safe environments such as clubs that students can join where they can learn about the issues without feeling threatened.
2. It would help to have mentorship programs arranged so that young scientists can connect with, get advice from, and receive encouragement from others in the sciences throughout their training. I would have loved to have this option during my younger years.
3. Recognition and awards for innovative ideas and projects is another way to encourage them to explore this issue.
4. Finally, positive reinforcement is most effective. Young scientists need to feel that their work is the future. We need to remind them that human-based testing methods are the future. One day, animal experimentation will be obsolete. So, encourage them to be part of the new science, the cutting edge science, the right and the best science. Q. Is enough being done to develop human-relevant alternatives in the scientific community? Why or why not?
Absolutely not. Our tax dollars are still used far more to pay for animal experimentation than for alternatives. Also, as long as regulatory agencies keep demanding these outdated animal experiments, there will be little incentive by industry and other scientists to pursue alternative methods. Q. What advice would you give to people interested in ending the use of animals in research? How can they help make a difference?
I think it is important that we separate the practice of animal experimentation from the individuals who conduct animal experimentation. We need to address the underlying mindset that allows these experiments to continue. That mindset is the enemy, not individuals.
I mentioned above how no one wants to turn the mirror on themselves, especially if that mirror is magnified. The mirror just shows all the ugliness- our zits, our blotchy skin, our wrinkles. Who wants to look at that? So we need to do the opposite with animal experimenters. Rather than just showing the ugliness of their work, we should instead show them the beauty of what they can be and do instead.
It is a challenge, no doubt, to tackle this mindset. But take heart! Things are truly changing. I have been involved with this issue for more than twenty years and never before have I seen more public support to end animal experiments than now. Also, despite the minimal incentives I mention earlier, there is still a groundswell of incredible scientists who are discovering amazing human-based testing methods. These methods will likely be far superior scientifically to animal experiments- not to mention superior ethically.
Here are a few other suggestions:
1. People need to feel confident and to know that they actually can argue this issue. It’s not so complicated in the end- it simply comes down to this: we can do so much better. That’s the mantra everyone just needs to keep repeating. We can do better! While facts are important- we should not get bogged down with them. Ultimately, what convinces and moves people are values, not facts. So we should focus most on what values we embrace. We need to become more politically involved.
2. We need to make this issue a political issue. So we need smart people to think about how we can do this.
3. Lastly, we need a network of advocate groups throughout the country who are geared to work together on this issue. I think in the next few years, there will be some very strategic work that we can do and we will need a network of people and groups coordinating together. We can win this issue. I have no doubt about that. So we need a groundswell of people who are fired up and ready to move on this when the time comes. Stay tuned!