Science - January 19, 2006

Animal scientists angry with Korthals

Many animal scientists at Wageningen UR feel offended by statements made by the chair of philosophy Professor Michiel Korthals. In an interview with the regional newspaper De Gelderlander he said that the ethical awareness of Wageningen researchers was ‘pretty bad’ and that ‘far too many experimental animals are used’.

Korthals is a member of an ethical committee that evaluates research proposals for the European Union. He based his statements on his experiences in the committee. ‘Proposals from Wageningen come up regularly. I have the impression that, when it comes to the ethical aspects, they are increasingly badly formulated.’

Korthals has noticed for example that the number of animals used in an experiment is not always justified carefully. ‘There was a proposal recently in which it was written that somewhere between two thousand and four thousand cattle were needed. A margin like that is far too big. I find that disappointing: if you claim to do the best research, then you also have to take the best care in this field as well. American and Canadian universities that Wageningen aims to emulate, such as Cornell, are more concerned. Because of the pressure of public opinion, they devote a lot of attention to the ethical justification of their research. As far as I can see the Wageningen standards are standing still, or are even declining.’

Professor Ruud Huirne, general director of the Animal Sciences Group, is angry about the interview. ‘Korthals suggests that people doing animal experiments here are just messing about. That is really not the case. We comply with all the legal requirements. We have to justify each experiment properly. My experience is that our people are very aware.’ According to Huirne the norms are becoming stricter, and his researchers are paying more and more attention to the ethical aspects of their work.

Korthals: ‘I have heard that some people are angry. It seems to me to be a case of blaming the bearer of bad news, but as long as they are concerned about the message. The problem is that I cannot give concrete examples, because the committee is bound by confidentiality. I considered carefully whether I should make the statement, but I believe it is something I am entitled to say. It’s not that animal experiments should be banned. But we need to think about the consequences of doing them. Ethics helps you to pose the right questions. Look at the teaching at animal sciences: there is no course on ethics in the bachelor’s programme.’

According to Huirne, Korthals’ criticism is ‘demonstrably incorrect’. Animal sciences students are presented with ethical issues in a number of courses. ‘Because it’s so far from the truth, many people here just shrug their shoulders in reaction to the criticism.’ / KV

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