Education & Research
Today, in the field of education, there is insufficient attention to intersecting theoretical, historical, sociological, ecological, ethical, and moral issues that have been influenced by our relationships with each other and with other species.
Narratives about history and our potential collective futures are often determined by people in power at the expense of vulnerable, exploited, and marginalized individuals and communities.
Researchers, educators, members of the media, and others who produce and use knowledge may also have conflicting interests, expectations, concerns, and priorities that contribute to existing injustices, although there are emerging efforts to correct these inequities.
The conduct by which knowledge is produced throughout the field of research has also been problematic, as history has shown. In 1974, following a painful record of unjust human research practices, the US Congress established the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, which published a document called the Belmont Report five years later.
At the time, the Belmont Report changed the conduct of human research by articulating key ethical principles, specifically respect for autonomy and protections from harm and injustice—all of which have led to informed consent requirements, mandatory assessments of the risks and benefits of research, and special protections for vulnerable populations. Across the world, international organizations and national governments adhere to the same principles, as seen in the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Helsinki and in the Nuremberg Code, which emerged as a result of Nazi-led experiments during the Second World War.
Although there have been significant advances in human research practices, unscrupulous practices continue. These practices target particularly vulnerable populations, including children, people living in developing countries, those experiencing homelessness, and individuals with cognitive and psychiatric differences.
Today, some of the most problematic research practices also involve animals. Millions of animals—including dogs, cats, nonhuman primates, and many other species of small and large animals—are used in research each year. After being forcibly bred, caged, and isolated, most endure a lifetime of suffering, full of painful, arduous protocols and procedures that cause physical and mental illness. And then they are usually killed.
The Animal Welfare Act and related laws and policies have done relatively little to address ethical problems with animal research. Many animals are excluded from legal protections.
Many doctors, scientists, and policymakers already question the validity and reliability of applying knowledge gained from animal experiments to human ailments, as well as the risks such poor science poses to particularly vulnerable human patients and populations. Fortunately, although they have yet to be fully implemented, there are more ethical, human-relevant tools that can be used to study disease and therapeutic interventions.
The current treatment of animals within the context of research is based on arbitrary standards, and it has clear implications for human beings as well. Until we treat animals with the dignity and justice they deserve, marginalized human populations also remain at risk.
We can pursue research and education that is grounded in compassionate curiosity, innovation, ethics, and equity.
When the World Is a Phoenix Zone
Humans, like other lifeforms, are curious, and we find fulfillment in satisfying our curiosity. Our intellect is one of the capacities we usefully employ in meeting our physical needs. Current knowledge production and education systems, however, commonly revolve around intellectual pursuits while denying our moral and intuitive capacities and our equally fulfilling capacities for intra- and interspecies relationships—capacities that we also share with other animals.
An absence of compassion in the pursuit of knowledge has enabled the abuse and deaths of countless vulnerable human beings and animals. Too often, educational systems stifle human creativity and compassionate innovation by discouraging efforts to think outside the box and to seek investigative techniques and technologies that respect rights. It does not need to be this way.
We envision the world’s human population producing knowledge and educating each other in collaboration with rather than through domination of each other and other creatures, supported by institutional programs and policies that value social and environmental justice above corporate profits and knowledge for knowledge’s sake. No knowledge production worker will be asked to suppress their compassion or to deny their connectedness to others, human or otherwise. Vulnerable humans and animals will have nothing to fear at the hands of scientific and healthcare workers.
By respecting the rights of all beings to the means necessary to explore, grow, and thrive, we can increase our capacity to continuously learn how to live better on the planet in harmony with others. Humans can do this; with your help, this vision can become a reality.
Our Response Toward Effective Solutions
Research and Analysis
Fortunately, in both education and the conduct of research, there have been important advancements, including attention to the cross-cultural and joint production of knowledge; community-based participatory research; the appropriate contextualization of new knowledge; critical thinking; and open dialogue. Nonetheless, there are still opportunities to improve education and research initiatives in order to better address historically exploitative relationships and to identify potential resolutions to resulting inequities.
Within the conduct of human research, problems with the selection, inclusion, and treatment of some vulnerable populations remain. These problems are related to the treatment of animals in research, although public sentiment that challenges unethical research practices is growing. For example, more than half of all Americans think that medical research using animals is morally unacceptable, and public opposition to animal research has steadily risen over the past decade.
Currently many organizations are working to address unethical human and animal experimentation through a patchwork process, targeting one experiment or one group of experiments at a time. Other organizations focus on reforming or enforcing laws that still do not reconcile fundamental ethical problems with the existing research paradigm. These efforts are important components of a comprehensive strategy to stop unethical research, and we partner with some of the organizations leading these efforts.
Education, Advocacy, Coalition Building, and Policy and Practice Change
Together, with partners from education, research, media, the arts, and multiple other sectors and disciplines, we help drive more ethical, inclusive, and compassionate knowledge production that serves historically vulnerable populations. Through valued partnerships, continuing education, professional conferences, publications, and advocacy for shifts in curricula and funding patterns, we aim to mainstream better education, research, and practice.
As part of a commitment to more compassionate knowledge production, we also believe it is time to extend the ethical framework set forth in the Belmont Report to animals, and we are working toward this goal. Like us, animals are vulnerable, but they still overwhelmingly bear the burdens of research in spite of their inability to provide informed consent or to benefit from its outcomes.
Our efforts to reexamine the principles outlined in the Belmont Report and related documents also prompt a reevaluation of human research, including the need to enhance protections for those who are most vulnerable to exploitation.
We advocate for changes in funding mechanisms, journal publication practices, and incentive structures within academia that better represent a more ethical and just approach to research. Please join us.