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Balancing Harm and Benefit

Conducting a harm-benefit analysis is a key part of the thinking that each animal-based scientist and their institutional Animal Ethics Committee must do during the planning stages, before any research, teaching or testing procedure with animals can begin.

The main ethical principle which guides most animal use in science is this:

“Using animals for scientific purposes is acceptable only when any harm done to the animals is very greatly outweighed by the benefits of their use”.

However, it is not enough for the harm just to be much lower than the benefits. The harm must be made as low as it can be and the benefits must be the greatest they can be, so that the separation between the harm and the benefits is the greatest that can be feasibly achieved.

This means that animal-based scientists and animal ethics committees have to do three things before a proposal to conduct a research, teaching or testing procedure can be approved.

  1. They must make sure that any harm caused is as low as it can be.
  2. They must make sure that the expected benefits of the work are achievable and are as great as possible.
  3. They must weigh any expected harm to the animals against the anticipated benefits of the work.

Click on each statement to find out more. Remember that animal-based scientists and animal ethics committees must do all three of these things, so it will be good to read about all of them.

1. They must make sure that any harm caused is as low as it can be.

This is achieved by applying the 3Rs Principle when developing and reviewing the proposed procedure. Application of the 3Rs Principle helps to ensure that animals are only used when that is really necessary, that no more and no fewer animals are used than are required to achieve the objectives of the work, and that if any noxiousness or harm is caused during the work, it is kept as low as possible.

2. They must make sure that the expected benefits of the work are achievable and are as great as possible.

This is done in two steps. First, by carefully examining the precise scientific aims of the procedure to ensure that those aims can actually be realised by doing the work as proposed. Second, by carefully assessing the beneficial purpose of research projects, teaching exercises and testing procedures as follows:

  • For research projects, what value the new knowledge will or might have in helping to solve the health, welfare, practical, economic or other problem it is designed to address.
  • For teaching exercises, how the proposed procedure will enhance students’ learning about body processes.
  • For testing procedures, whether they are legally required and can appropriately assess the safety or effectiveness of chemicals, drugs, medicines, vaccines and other substances.

3. They must weigh any expected harm to the animals against the anticipated benefits of the work.

When weighing harm against benefit they must apply a most important principle.
It is that:

“The greater the harm or noxiousness the greater must be the expected benefits before a procedure can be approved”.

This is illustrated below. For examples at each level of noxiousness click on the grade.

Grade O
No suffering or noxiousness.
Such procedures would not usually require justification in terms of expected indirect or direct benefits to animals, people or both.

Grade A
Little suffering or noxiousness.
Such procedures would require justification regarding the expected indirect or direct benefits to animals, people or both.

Grade B
Moderate suffering or noxiousness.
Such procedures would require good justification regarding the expected direct benefits to animals, people or both.

Grade C
Severe suffering or noxiousness.
Such procedures would require strong justification regarding the expected direct benefits to animals, people or both.

Grade X
Very severe suffering or noxiousness.
Such procedures would require the most exceptional justification and would be permitted only very rarely.

However, just because a proposal may be expected to bring very great benefits which, as noted above, could justify causing greater harm to the animals used, that does not exempt animal-based scientists or animal ethics committees from conscientiously applying the 3Rs to keep any harm as low as it can be. Likewise, even when any harm is already quite low, attempts must be made to get it lower if that can be practically achieved.