Balancing Harm and Benefit

Conducting a harm-benefit analysis is a key part of the thinking that each animal-based scientist and their institutional Animal Ethics Committee must do during the planning stages, before any research, teaching or testing procedure with animals can begin.

The main ethical principle which guides most animal use in science is this:

Using animals for scientific purposes is acceptable only when any harm done to the animals is very greatly outweighed by the benefits of their use.

However, it is not enough for the harm just to be much lower than the benefits. The harm must be made as low as it can be and the benefits must be the greatest they can be, so that the separation between the harm and the benefits is the greatest that can be feasibly achieved.

Harm-benefit analysis

Animal-based scientists and animal ethics committees must ensure the below before a proposal to conduct a research, teaching or testing procedure can be approved.

  • Any harm caused must be as low as it can be

    This is achieved by applying the 3Rs Principle when developing and reviewing the proposed procedure. Application of the 3Rs Principle helps to ensure that animals are only used when that is really necessary, that no more and no fewer animals are used than are required to achieve the objectives of the work, and that if any noxiousness or harm is caused during the work, it is kept as low as possible.

  • The expected benefits of the work are achievable and are as great as possible

    This is done in two steps. Firstly, by carefully examining the precise scientific aims of the procedure to ensure that those aims can actually be realised by doing the work as proposed. Secondly, by carefully assessing the beneficial purpose of research projects, teaching exercises and testing procedures as follows:

    • For research projects, what value the new knowledge will or might have in helping to solve the health, welfare, practical, economic or other problem it is designed to address.
    • For teaching exercises, how the proposed procedure will enhance students’ learning about body processes.
    • For testing procedures, whether they are legally required and can appropriately assess the safety or effectiveness of chemicals, drugs, medicines, vaccines and other substances.
  • The expected benefits of the work are achievable and are as great as possible

    When weighing harm against benefit the below most important principle must be applied:

    The greater the harm or noxiousness the greater must be the expected benefits before a procedure can be approved.

    It is important to note that even if a proposal may be expected to bring very great benefits, which could justify causing greater harm to the animals used, it does not exempt animal-based scientists or animal ethics committees from conscientiously applying the 3Rs to keep any harm as low as it can be.

    Likewise, even when any harm is already quite low, attempts must be made to get it lower if that can be practically achieved.