Wednesday, August 29, 2012

When animals aren't 'animals.'

I know a guy who has fishing licenses in about ten states. He doesn't fish, but he does study salamanders, and according to the fishing regulations in many states, salamanders are fish and you need a fishing license to mess with them. Salamanders are of course not fish, unless you are a hard-core cladist who thinks that all vertebrates are fish. State fishing officials are not generally hard-core cladists, just people who write and enforce regulations and don’t really care if salamanders aren’t fish.
A similar situation arises when it comes to laws governing ethical animal research. If a scientist wants to passively observe a bunch of animals in the wild, she needs to go through all kinds of ethics boards and paper-work to make sure she is complying with these laws. If another scientist wants to slowly dissolve a bunch of live insects in acid, he just needs to buy some acid, because legally, invertebrate animals aren’t ‘animals.’ Animal ethics laws generally don’t apply to them. I say generally because their are particular exceptions. Switzerland and Norway consider lobsters and their relatives to be animals, so you can’t just drop them in boiling water (at least not in a scientific context), you have to kill them humanely. England extends animal protection laws to the Common Octopus, but apparently not to other less common octopuses, so it pays to be common.

For a researcher like myself, who studies invertebrates in the lab, this is a very convenient absurdity. It means that when I want to feed live brine-shrimp to my hydra, I don’t have to ask any committees to review whether the feeding is humane to the brine-shrimp or the hydra. I don’t need to get official approval for the size of container I keep barnacles in.
I approve of laws, regulations, forms and committees that require the ethical treatment of animals in research, and I try hard to follow the principles they are intended to enforce. I am also very glad I don’t personally have to deal with the red tape.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Letter to the Committee on Science

Dear Committee on Science, Space and Technology,

I would like to offer you my perspective as an American scientist currently working oversees. I work with scientists from all over the world, and frequently encounter the stereotype that Americans are willfully ignorant and prone to rejecting established scientific facts. Efforts to argue against this view are made nearly impossible by the frequent counter-factual statements made by America's political leaders, including those whose jobs specifically call for some understanding of science, such as those on science committees. While Rep. Akin has shown himself to be a particularly questionable choice, his membership demonstrates that no particular knowledge or understanding of science is expected of committee members. Indeed, it would appear that a significant number of committee members have repeatedly demonstrated a strong antipathy towards science.

This is an embarrassment for our great nation, and tarnishes the reputation of American science and education. I would like to suggest that our political leaders in general, but members of science-focused committees in specific, harm the USA when intentionally ignoring, misunderstanding or inventing scientific facts. This is because good policy can't be based on false knowledge, but also because our country is made to look like a bunch of fools. As such, I would suggest that some knowledge of science should be a prerequisite for membership in a science committee. The dim view that many in America and around the world currently take of your committee could perhaps be improved by removing one of your most glaringly ignorant members.

Dan Levitis