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Research project

Exploring how laboratory animal technicians put ethics into practice

Project overview

To understand how junior ATs learn how ‘to do the right thing’ for their own and the animals’ welfare.
Research questions
1. What practical and or institutional obstacles do ATs face when working to ensure good animal welfare?
2. How is ‘doing the right thing’ discussed and experienced in the context of ATs meeting the challenges of reconciling scientific research, animal care and personal workplace well-being?
3. What variables (e.g. prior experience, formal training, species) affect the development of AT skills?
Prior Work
Ethical review procedures for animal experimentation rarely hear the voice of the (junior) ATs who carry out the day-to-day care and housing of research animals. They are not scientists or budget holders yet they carry ‘the technician’s burden acting as ‘buffers between the scientists and the animals’ (Birke et al 2007:103). Existing interview-based studies report AT work as challenging (ibid). Their workplace is heavily regulated and controversial within society-at-large, which must affect day-to-day practices and emotional well-being in ways which might not be captured by a single interview and require a more sustained, long term engagement with ATs.
Prior peer-reviewed publications by the applicants have outlined an ethical interpretative framework that develops Haraway’s (2008) ‘response-abilities’ as a means for understanding ‘ethics in practice’ (Greenhough and Roe 2010; 2011). This approach focuses less on making decisions, showing good judgment and suppressing ‘gut feelings’, but rather precisely on the ability to feel and respond which modern moral frameworks have sought to drill out of subjects.
We suggest that how ATs ‘do the right thing’ or put animal welfare and ethics into practice needs greater research attention, contributing to a growing body of work in practical ethics (Smith and Jennings 2009) and critical bioethics (Hedgecoe 2004). Widening the circle of concern (Murdoch 2003) to include the coping experiences of ATs as well as the suffering experiences of research animals, would offer novel perspectives to further develop ethical practice and review processes. The capacity of ATs to sense and Respond to animal needs adds a fourth to Russell and Birch’s (1959) 3Rs, concerned with providing appropriate support for the humans tasked with caring for the research animal.
Plan of research
We have established collaborations with three Biological Services Units in UK Universities. This study will involve a two-week period of participant observation of junior ATs at work at one site, 18 (2 persons on 3 occasions at 3 sites) in-depth interviews with 6 ATs and participant observation at the IAT annual congress 2014.
Participant observation (Laurier 2003) can provide detailed insights into day-to-day practices (e.g. adding environmental enrichment, killing), which are hard to capture in an interview conversation, and has proved particularly effective in illuminating human-animal relationships in Scandinavian research on laboratory animal science (e.g Holmberg 2008). Field notes are used as a method of data collection, incorporating descriptions of environments, their human and animal inhabitants and the relationships between them. Field notes will be coded, thematically analysed and be used as a basis for refining the proposed interview questions.
In-depth interviews usually take a semi-structured format (Longhurst, 2003: 117). Interviews allow social scientists to explore ethics from the ‘bottom up’ (Hedgecoe 2004), arising from experiences of trying to do the right thing. Repeat interviews (6 monthly) will show how ATs’ skills, experiences and responses change over time, and build the rapport and trust necessary to tackle challenging issues. Interviews will be recorded, transcribed, coded and analysed thematically (Coffey and Atkinson 1996, Cope 2003).
Relevance to policy and practice
This study will benefit laboratory animal research and facility staff, ethical review bodies and animals themselves, by highlighting the role of the AT-animal relationship in ensuring good animal welfare and providing recommendations for supporting ATs in facilitating good animal welfare and contributing more fully in ethical discussions.


Lead researcher

Professor Emma Roe

Professor of More-Than-Human Geographies
Connect with Emma

Collaborating research institutes, centres and groups

Research outputs

Gail Davies, Beth Greenhough, Pru Hobson-West, Robert G.W. Kirk, Alexandra Palmer & Emma Roe, 2024
Type: book
Ben Anderson, Akanksha Awal, Daniel Cockayne, Beth Greenhough, Jess Linz, Anurag Mazumdar, Aya Nassar, Harry Pettit, Emma J. Roe, Derek Ruez, Mónica Salas Landa, Anna Secor & Aelwyn Williams, 2023, Geographical Journal, 189(1), 143-160
Type: article
Emma Roe & Beth Greenhough, 2023, Social & Cultural Geography, 24(1), 49-66
Type: article
Beth Greenhough & Emma Roe, 2019, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 37(2), 367-384
Type: article