Out of the lab, into the field

A workshop exploring animal research at POLEs

Social scientists and historians have long observed that laboratory and field research are rather different (e.g., Gieryn, 2006; Kohler, 2002). For example, laboratories are seemingly contained and controlled spaces designed for the specific purpose of performing science, whereas ‘fields’ are largely uncontrolled spaces used for numerous different purposes and associated forms of regulation, some of which may overlap or come into conflict with the pursuit of scientific research.

Unlike researchers working in the laboratory, who would generally only encounter other researchers and specially trained staff, those working in the field encounter all sorts of different people, be they random members of the public who happen by while research is taking place, or stakeholders whose buy-in is essential—such as animal owners, local citizen science groups, and farm and fisheries managers.

In fields, moreover, the welfare of the animals can be impacted by factors completely outside of the researcher’s control, be that a disease threatening wildlife or an unusual diet fed by an animal’s owner. Study subjects may even be killed by third parties, for example with wildlife species that are hunted or subject to population controls. Field research also involves the use of animals not bred specifically for research; they are not just ‘research animals’ but also pet, farm, zoo, and wild animals, with whom we have specific, culturally bound relationships (Herzog, 2010).

Even though ‘fields’ are variable and hard to control, they are still sites where various ethical and legal obligations apply, such as attention to animal welfare. For this reason, we wanted to explore some of the unique challenges faced by non-laboratory research with animals, with a particular focus on the social, ethical, and regulatory issues that emerge in these kinds of sites.

The Oxford Species and Spaces team, with the help of our Nottingham colleagues, decided to host a workshop to discuss these matters, with a focus on spaces known as ‘places other than licensed establishments’ (POLEs) as designated under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (A(SP)A). Our 13 invited participants (including one who kindly participated remotely) included not only researchers who work in various kinds of ‘fields’, but also vets, social scientists, and others. The workshop took place on the 30th of September and 1st of October, 2019, at Keble College.

We kicked off with a plenary by Dr Julie Lane from the Animal and Plant Health Agency's National Wildlife Management Centre, who provided an overview of the rather complex array of regulations affecting UK wildlife research, as well as some of the key ethical issues encountered by wildlife researchers. Some particularly memorable lessons were to think about non-target animals who might be caught in traps (such as a farm dog who was repeatedly caught in a trap marked with leopard urine—a sign of a rather unexpected cross-species attraction?) and to ‘expect the unexpected’ (a video of a rabbit chasing some stoats illustrating this point).

The audience – made up of both workshop attendees and members of the public interested in the topic – appeared to appreciate the talk, with one researcher commenting during the Q&A that it clearly articulated various concerns they’ve had about their area of work for some time, as well as highlighting new issues that they hadn’t thought about.

After some great discussions over dinner, the workshop attendees assembled early on day two for a packed day of talks and discussions. Given the wide-ranging scope of our conversations it is impossible go into everything we discussed here. However, it is worth pointing out a few key themes that cropped up during the day. Because the workshop was intended as a ‘safe space’ for participants to openly discuss their views, we have not included specific detail on presenters or their areas of work.

What POLEs can teach A(SP)A

We agreed that there are various ways that A(SP)A in practice works differently in the lab versus the field. For example, providing medical treatment to wild animals can be problematic if it interferes with the aims of the study, meaning that a different approach might be required (such as leaving animals no worse off than when they arrived).

However, there was less agreement about whether the ethical issues raised in and out of the laboratory differ or remain constant. On the one hand, research out of the lab could be said to introduce a range of new ethical considerations—for example, in wildlife research one must think not only about the target research animal but others in the ecosystem who might be affected by the research. On the other hand, it was proposed that the ethical decision-making process in and out of the lab is the same, based on fundamental principles of animal welfare and the harm-benefit calculus.

Imagining animal research

Workshop attendees often agreed that the public tends to conflate ‘animal research’ with work in laboratories. While this often means that public perceptions of wildlife research and veterinary clinical research tend to be more positive than of laboratory-based biomedical research, we also discussed whether there is a need for greater public awareness of what non-laboratory research involves, and how it differs (or not) to work in the lab.

Defining science (and good science)

A(SP)A covers certain work with animals that is done for a ‘scientific purpose’, and excludes (among other things) recognised veterinary, agricultural, and animal husbandry practices. What exactly a ‘scientific purpose’ looks like compared with these other purposes can at times be confusing for researchers and prospective licensees, and our discussions dwelled on some of these grey areas.

We considered how members of the community might think about science differently (e.g., as a method rather than a purpose), and realised that this is potentially a subject of disagreement. The relationship between scientific methodology, the definition of science in terms of its purpose, and regulatory decision-making was therefore a lively topic of conversation throughout the workshop.

Going beyond A(SP)A

Perhaps the most significant subject of discussion was how best to manage ethical and methodological issues arising in non-A(SP)A regulated work with animals, such as work by wildlife by citizen scientists and the use of novel veterinary treatments. The group agreed that ideally some of the core principles of A(SP)A – such as attending to animal welfare and weighing the expected harms and benefits – should be extended to these areas of work.

Currently this does not always happen. For example, as Dr Lane explained in her plenary, depending on the species it may not be necessary to have any kind of licence for trapping wild animals, if the animal in question is not protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, and yet trapping can compromise the welfare of many animals.

During the workshop, different views were expressed on how to address this gap, but a general feeling in the room was that extending A(SP)A or working towards the introduction of yet more regulation (to what is already a crowded field) probably wouldn’t be ideal. Instead, it may be better to think of other ways to encourage a ‘culture of care’ in non-A(SP)A regulated animal research work.

AnNex members will continue to think through these questions alongside our workshop participants and other stakeholders. We also delved into some of these topics again at an event at the Oxford Museum of Natural History on the 6th of November, 2019, which explored regulation in wildlife citizen science.

For more detail, check out the POLEs workshop summary notes.

Gieryn TF (2006) City as Truth-Spot: Laboratories and Field-Sites in Urban Studies. Social Studies of Science 36(1): 5–38.

Herzog H (2010) Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s so Hard to Think Straight about Animals. New York: Harper.

Kohler RE (2002) Landscapes and Labscapes: Exploring the Lab-Field Border in Biology. University of Chicago Press.

Written by:

Ally Palmer
"Perhaps the most significant subject of discussion was how best to manage ethical and methodological issues arising in non-A(SP)A regulated work with animals, such as work by wildlife by citizen scientists and the use of novel veterinary treatments."