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UZH Journal

The 3Rs and the ethics of animal research

This two-day block course analyzes and reflects on the scientifically and socially relevant and controversial topic of animal use in research from different perspectives. “Because of their complexity, the questions raised around animal welfare, animal rights and freedom of research are very well suited to transdisciplinary thinking and ways of working,” says Paulin Jirkof. The biologist works as 3R coordinator at the Animal Welfare Department, and co-designed the transdisciplinary course for students from all seven faculties with her colleague, the bioethicist Matthias Eggel. 
The debate about animal experiments and appropriate replacement methods concerns a wide range of disciplines, from medicine and natural sciences to humanities, social sciences and case law. By looking at concrete problems from the real world in groups and in guided discussions, students therefore learn what factual knowledge (e.g. from biochemistry or legislation) and which tools (e.g. concepts from ethical theory or methods for balancing interests) they need to review the case studies. The course considers questions such as whether it makes a difference if experiments are conducted on monkeys or mice, or if a great deal of suffering is inflicted on a small number of animals rather than a small amount of suffering on a large number of animals. It also addresses, for example, questions of whether experiments that contribute to research into common diseases in older people should be assessed differently to those into rare childhood diseases. The course also looks at how we can weigh up the suffering and distress inflicted on animals against the potential benefits to humans.
As Paulin Jirkof points out, this is not about finding the right answers. “Instead, the interactive approach and protected environment aim to offer scope to develop new perspectives from mutual exchange and to test the presented scientific tools in a practical and where possible creative way, for example formulating a more extreme opinion or carrying out a thought experiment.”