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Animal welfare researchers must be honest about motivations

Many people take the Christmas and New Year period as a time to ponder how they can be a better person. We make resolutions about eating better, doing exercise, being kinder or slowing down. We all know…

The decisions we make about animal welfare are important; even more so if we’re welfare researchers. Jannes Pockele

Many people take the Christmas and New Year period as a time to ponder how they can be a better person. We make resolutions about eating better, doing exercise, being kinder or slowing down.

We all know that the way we live our lives is very important to our own physical, mental and spiritual health, and that of society in general. Christianity - like many other religions - advocates that we should search for the truth about the impact of our actions on ourselves and others throughout our lives.

Escaping the truth about the world that we live in should be far from any scientist’s mind. But 2012 was marked for me by some disturbing evidence from my research group that many scientists are doing just that.

In a study of how scientists report animal welfare research, Agnes van der Schott found convincing proof that they are greatly influenced by the funding agency.

Scientists working on animal industry-funded studies are, it appears, more likely to report that new methods to improve welfare did not work. Presumably this is because they are likely to increase costs to animal producers. In contrast to this, scientists working on studies funded by animal advocacy groups are more likely to report welfare benefits.

These findings are hardly surprising, given the pressure on scientists to get large grants. But the study, together with similar issues detected in the medical sciences, emphasise that we must have better control of the ways in which we work towards an improved understanding of today’s problems.

Scientists should have ethical training, and not just in their initial degrees but throughout their career. Research organisations should not allow their scientists to accept grants that come with conditions about only reporting results that are favourable to the funding agency. Journal editors should use peer review and their own judgement to screen out unjustified claims by scientists.

The main role of my research group is to expose the truth about animal welfare issues. A major issue in 2012 was the export of livestock from our shores to distant lands. However, as well as the biological response to shipment, it is hard to ignore the political element of this trade.

One of Australia’s biggest problems these days, as a former isolated country that is increasingly thrust into the melee of international activity, is its relations with its neighbours. In 2011 this surfaced prominently with the cancellation of cattle exports to Indonesia. But the knock-on effects on relations with Indonesia were not largely felt until 2012.

Drastically reducing the import quota, rejecting our shipments of breeder cattle, and expanding their own capacity to produce homegrown beef, were all part of the Indonesian Government’s eventual response. That response was designed to punish the Australian government for their action.

Predictably the livstock traders have turned to other countries to accept these animals that are surplus to Australia’s requirements. They plan to build feedlots in China, for example. Meanwhile the animal welfare advocacy supporters have exposed welfare issues in abattoirs around the world that take Australian livestock.

My own research group has restricted its focus to the biological response of animals to long distance ship transport. We have obtained evidence of welfare impacts of the ship’s motion on sheep behaviour, and have had increasingly strong proof of adverse effects on sheep and cattle of the ammonia that comes from their excreta.

Australians are becoming more annd more aware of the impacts our livestock export industry has on the well-being of animals. We also hear much about the damage that using our precious agricultural land for beef and sheep production can do. But how many of us tucked into a joint over Christmas?

Our actions matter. One of the main ways in which we can individually make a difference in the problems of global warming, food insecurity in developing countries, and improving human health is to eat ethically.

We should all remember that the way we live our lives matters. It affects our health, our environment, our wellbeing and that of those around us.

Join the conversation

15 Comments sorted by

  1. Jeni Hood

    Dr Jeni Hood BSc Hons BVMS PhD at Dr Jennifer Hood & Associates

    Scientists are influenced by their funding agency? Lol Clive-next you'll be telling us that AQIS accredited vets (AAVs) might have conflicts of interest. Thank you again for tackling the hard questions-this time about the honesty of our motivations. As scientists, I believe it is critical that we don't allow ourselves to be bought (even in the nicest way)...and if we are then at least we shouldn't kid ourselves that we are acting entirely independently of financial and career consequences.

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  2. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    Interesting, but I'm not sure what practical action the article is proposing. You could suggest all research has some sort of 'motivation'.

    Isn't it the responsibility of reviewers and readers to detect bias in the framing of a research question and unsound methodology?

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  3. Murray Webster

    Forestry-Ecology Consultant/Contractor

    This concept of researchers being honest, ( and reporting being accurate, particularly in popular media) extends across virtually all science. Scientists are human and therefore have values and beliefs - and if my reading of psychology is correct - these influence our behaviours without us consciously knowing. Even psychologists ironically!

    But, what to do about it?

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  4. Reza Mohammed

    Senior Coordinator, Research Project Services at RMIT University

    Why do we export livestock rather than the meat? If we just exported the meat, then we would have more control over the animals' living conditions and the manner in which they were slaughtered. Halal meat needed? There are Muslims in Australia that can do it. Kosher meat? There are Jews here too....

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  5. Comment removed by moderator.

  6. Marian Macdonald

    logged in via Twitter

    Breathtaking hypocrisy given your own very idealogically-driven source of funding - Voiceless.

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  7. Sue Ieraci

    Public hospital clinician

    Like the assessment of cost-effectiveness of health interventions, and the argument for cloth vs disposable nappies, the ethics of food production is a highly complex argument, going back through many layers.

    In the nappy example, it's not as simple as the disposability of the final product - but also involves the environmental impact of the growing of cotton, and the impacts of detergent, water and bleaches used in their laundering.

    In the case of live cattle exports to Indonesia, the impact…

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  8. Tim Scanlon

    Debunker

    Just a couple of points: scientists working for animal industry groups are more likely to have actual experience with livestock systems and have a more practical viewpoint. So viewpoints of funding may not be the issue as much as who is likely to be doing the research. That said, reluctance to change, or maintenance of the status quo, is normal in any field.

    The other point is that welfare often come at animal industries the wrong way. The cited feedlot for China, why isn't that a new export market of frozen meat? Why haven't the welfare groups spent their time and money developing markets that will result in better welfare standards? Research on how shipping effects animals, why isn't that research to improve shipping or make it unnecessary?

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  9. Malcolm Caulfield

    Principal Lawyer

    This is a difficult issue and Clive and Agnes are right to have highlighted it. James Jenkins raises the correct point, which is that referees and editors have a duty to look out for bias and seek to correct it. Part of the problem is the misuse of statistics to favour one interpretation or another. For example, saying that mean values are different (typically in an abstract) without pointing out that the difference is not statistically significant, or worse still, saying that there is a "trend" towards a statistically significant difference. The animal welfare literature is awash with such nonsense.

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  10. Peter Gerard

    Retired medical practitioner

    It is interesting that you invoke 'Christianity and other religions' to underpin your plea for ethical eating, as one way to improve animal welfare. What about ethical slaughter in Australia.? In this respect those of the Jewish and Islamic faiths continue, with government approval, to adhere to archaic food laws with the practice of kosher and halal ritual slaughter. Our government could ban these practices, as has happened in several European countries, and would receive overwhelming support from…

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  11. Claire Vinet

    Retired

    Any scientist on the animal industry's payroll studying animal industry issues already has an irreconcilable conflict of interest. When money is involved, ethics are expendable. Another case in point: "expert" witnesses used in legal proceedings. Both the prosecution and defense have "experts" testifying. Both have equal/fairly equal credentials, yet each's opinion is diametrically opposed to the other and favorable to the side paying their fees... Almost everyone, including scientists, can be bought.

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  12. wilma western

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    This looks like a general attack on scientists as they all have their own preconceptions etc. What distinguishes sound independent research from poor research biassed by preconceptions or funding sources? The reader'
    s own preferences on one hand ; or on the other ,analysis of how well the research meets the criteria of sampling. statistical significancve etc , peer review ? No vegan animal welfare campaigner is going to be satisfied by any research that concludes that animal exports in properly configured and ventilated ships meets acceptable welfare standards. No slaughter of farm animals would ever be acceptable either.

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  13. Cat Mack

    logged in via Facebook

    It is interesting that so many associated with agriculture and food production still view animals and animal welfare as something that can be resolved through an equation of welfare with productivity. (As if animals have no interests of their own that could be considered morally considerable) Clearly and by definition, an industry that takes this view of animal welfare cannot serve alternative views of animal welfare. So, while I have no doubt that improving the ventilation on board the ships transporting…

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  14. Ian Colditz

    Research Scientist in Livestock Health and Welfare at CSIRO

    Publication bias in science is an important issue. Over-representation of positive results in the published literature is well recognized and is a substantial problem for science publication. Having found that like other areas of science, positive results are reported more often than negative results in the animal welfare literature, Schot and Phillips (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10806-012-9433-8/fulltext.html) move on to the important question of whether authors exhibit a bias in…

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