Students must learn to deal with public opinion, speaker says
posted January 1, 2010
Egg producers must adhere to McDonald's standards to continue their business relationship.
The realm of animal welfare research provides much-needed scientific analysis of often emotionally fraught issues. As such, scientists can find themselves drawn into the public debate without much choice in the matter. Speakers at the Joint International Educational Symposium on Animal Welfare, hosted by the AVMA and Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, touched on current public attitudes about animal welfare, what researchers in the field should be aware of when taking on a research project, and also how their research can be used to change behavior.
Donald M. Broom, PhD, a professor at Cambridge University's Centre for Animal Welfare and Anthrozoology, gave a talk about public and stakeholder needs and expectations for animal welfare education and research.
He touched on the consequences production industries face as a result of media reports regarding practices that the public finds unacceptable. A primary and potentially devastating cost is the refusal of consumers to buy products from a country or company linked with animal harm. Tuna sales dropped sharply, for example, when it was revealed dolphins were being caught in tuna nets. French products were boycotted after the public learned how veal calves were being kept in small crates.
Dr. Broom said supermarkets and restaurant chains are being forced by their customers to take into account various concerns related to human health, animal welfare, environmental impact, and fair income when considering the source of the products they sell. Just recently, for example, McDonald's and Cargill contributed to a multiyear study looking at the impacts and sustainability of housing systems for egg-laying hens (see JAVMA, July 1, 2009, page 10).
Today, farmers throughout the world who wish to sell to retail companies have to comply with their production standards, Dr. Broom said, regardless of borders.
Yet, for all the changes happening in the animal welfare sphere, some areas have seen more growth than others. Dr. Broom said the U.S. animal production industry has been slow to see what is an obvious world change but is finally now responding to it. He added that the retail food industry has been far quicker in its responses to public concerns about animal welfare.
The way forward is through discussion, Dr. Broom said. He suggested the Department of Agriculture and the AVMA could facilitate meetings among various stakeholders. A national animal welfare committee with scientists who look objectively at current issues is another possibility, he said.
Joy A. Mench, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Animal Science and the director of the Center for Animal Welfare at the University of California-Davis. She recognizes that the next generation of animal welfare researchers will fill a critical role in deciding how animals in all sectors are viewed, used, treated, housed, and managed in the United States.
Students, therefore, have to be given the right tools to become good researchers and assume leadership roles in the real world.
Animal welfare research, Dr. Mench said, requires understanding one's own and others' ethical values regarding animals. Closely tied to policymaking, and meant to be applied, such research requires interacting and collaborating with stakeholders. As a result, animal welfare research is frequently multidisciplinary and controversial.
Dr. Mench said areas where many current students are not well-trained are related to practical experience, management of controversy, and understanding their roles as scientists in the debate. Research students should be encouraged to interact with stakeholders. Real-world experiences could include summer internships or auditing animal welfare standards.
She said the reality is that science has become a political weapon. This is true not just in animal welfare science, but in any controversial area, whether it's climate change, drug approval, conservation management, or reproductive health.
Those using science as a political weapon can attempt to discredit or censor research, take it out of context, or report it inaccurately, Dr. Mench said. As a result, scientists tend to reduce research activity in areas that are controversial, according to a recent study on the subject. However, implementing graduate student courses that allow students to discuss controversial issues can help prepare them to meet the challenges they will face as animal welfare researchers, Dr. Mench said.
Animal welfare research can be a positive, collaborative endeavor, according to Dan Weary, PhD, professor at the University of British Columbia, Canada.
Dr. Weary said research questions emerge from discussions with stakeholders, and research results can be used by stakeholders to create solutions that fit their needs. Going one step further, researchers can work with end users to implement solutions.
He stressed the importance of researchers doing more outreach, which starts by getting published in peer-reviewed, scholarly journals.
"This provides a time-honored method of quality control on any messages that go back to end-users before it goes to the public or broader audience," he said.
A further step involves reaching out to information multipliers such as industry professionals and veterinarians through books, articles, and presentations.
Finally, researchers should be encouraged to talk with end-users such as dairy producers and the public through the media or one-on-one meetings.
Dr. Weary gave as an example his university's work on outreach to farmers about dairy cow lameness. The university set up a program through which they went to local dairy farms and studied the conditions. When finished, they gathered the farmers and showed them the results. He found that the dairy producers were quick to compare results of various farms and come up with ideas for improvements on their own farms.
"Getting on the farm creates teachable moments," Dr. Weary said.