Animal Advocacy Research Fund – Round 4

I (Persis Eskander) was awarded funding in Round Four of the ACE Animal Advocacy Research Fund. Below is a copy of my grant proposal (with some minor redactions of private information).

Establishing a field of research for wild-animal suffering

Abstract

There is a dearth of research examining the problem of and seeking solutions to wild-animal suffering (WAS). One reason for this is that there is, as yet, not much momentum amongst academics and advocates. The number of people currently working on ways to reduce WAS is too small to achieve the large-scale impact that is their goal. If we hope to identify, and one day implement solutions to reduce WAS we need to rapidly grow the number of qualified and dedicated advocates and researchers who form the movement. This research project is an exploratory study into one avenue to achieve this growth: establishing a field of research for WAS. The project will involve a series of detailed case studies based on existing literature and qualitative interviews examining the development of analogous disciplines. We determine which disciplines are analogous based on: the recency of their establishment; their similarity to life science disciplines; and their use of normative and positive analysis. Comparing these case studies should allow us to draw parallels and learn which events, activities or strategies were most influential as well as which we can adopt and/or adapt to meet our goals. With these findings we can prioritise how to use existing resources to establish a field of research for WAS. Upon doing so, we expect to see: more contributions from qualified researchers; the rapid growth of knowledge; and faster development of feasible, net-positive interventions (should they exist) to reduce WAS.

Problem

Most wild animals experience some suffering during their lives. WAS may occur on an enormous scale, on par with or even greater than the suffering caused in factory farming (Tomasik, 2015). This is because the number of wild animals (“How Many Wild Animals Are There? | Essays on Reducing Suffering,” n.d.)—including invertebrates (Ray, 2017)—far exceeds that of factory farmed animals. The aggregate magnitude of harm in the wild depends on still unresolved questions on which animals are sentient, whether and if so how we assign moral weights amongst animals, and how severe their painful experiences are relative to their pleasurable ones. What we do know is that intense competition for scarce resources—along with prevailing population dynamics—means that starvation is the norm for many types of animals. In addition to starvation and other plights, wild animals may suffer from disease, parasitism, predation, injuries, and exposure to severe weather.

Unlike the growing awareness of and increasing resources dedicated to the suffering caused to factory-farmed animals, few are concerned about WAS. The number of people working on this issue is minute (15 is a generous estimation), and the resources given to this issue amount to less than $250,000 per year. Advocates are (rightly) hesitant to intervene directly without better understanding the short- and long-term impacts of such interventions. If we hope to reduce the suffering experienced by nonhuman animals in nature, we need domain experts working to understand the quality of the lives of wild animals so that we can design smart, effective solutions. Unfortunately, the life science domains in which people gain relevant expertise such as: ecology, zoology, veterinary science and neurobiology, are not inclined to investigate the normative questions necessary to reduce wild-animal suffering. In his seminal piece introducing the concept of “welfare biology” Yew Kwang-Ng writes

“[s]cientists in general are usually very reluctant to speak about subjective happiness and suffering, preferring to deal with more objectively measurable magnitudes. In fact, even when they use the apparently subjective terms of wellbeing such as “welfare”…they actually mean fitness for survival or abundance in the number of the species concerned, as if the subjective sense of “welfare” has absolutely no place in science…However, in my view, the importance of objective studies does not preclude the usefulness and even the necessity, at some stage or other, of dealing with the subjective variables of happiness and suffering. It is better to be roughly right on something important than to be accurate but wrong or irrelevant” (Ng, 1995, pp. 255 – 256).

Introducing normative analysis to life science is not unheard of (Franco, 2013), but it is unusual. While wild animal welfare advocates do not currently have the capacity to solve the complex problem of wild-animal suffering, it is in our capacity to explore ways develop academic field growth in life science. Understanding how academic fields grow and developing a strategy to increase academic interest in wild-animal suffering is a valuable research undertaking. The findings of this research project have the potential to rapidly increase the number of qualified people working on the problem. We expect this to lead to greater knowledge of the problem, determine the extent of the tractability of the cause area and establish the foundations for large-scale, net-positive interventions.

Research idea

This research project will explore how to establish an expert field of research on wild-animal suffering and policies to reduce it. There are a number of ways to conceive of an expert field of research for our purposes, therefore, this research project will include:

  • A brief discussion of why targeted capacity building amongst domain experts is currently more valuable than advocacy amongst the general population.
  • An examination of the benefits and challenges of establishing a new interdisciplinary field (e.g., welfare biology).

Case studies will then be conducted on existing academic fields so that we might understand the most important elements in field growth. They will incorporate literature reviews and qualitative interviews with experts to build a complete picture of early field growth in research. The academic fields we select will be prioritised and selected according to the following criteria:

  • The recency of their establishment;
  • Their similarity to life science disciplines according to one or more academic classification systems; and
  • Their use of normative and positive analysis.

The output of this research project is a report comprising the following:

  • An overview of existing content on early field growth in research.
  • Records of qualitative interviews conducted with key figures in selected fields.
  • An analysis of the findings and suggested paths toward establishing a field of research for WAS.

Methodology

  1. Outline key reasons for focusing on targeted rather than broad field growth.
    1. (“Some Case Studies in Early Field Growth,” 2016a)
    2. (Teles & Schmitt, 2011)
    3. (Kuhn, 2012)
    4. (“Social Movement Analysis | Animal Charity Evaluators,” n.d.)
  2. Examine the broad benefits and challenges in establishing an interdisciplinary field.
    1. Interdisciplinarity
      1. (Mitcham, 2010)
      2. (Newell, Szostak, & Repko, 2008)
      3. (Klein, 1990)
      4. (Jacobs & Frickel, 2009)
    2. Interdisciplinary Research
      1. (Atkinson & Crowe, 2006)
      2. (Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Sciences, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, & Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, 2005)
      3. (Strang, 2009)
  3. Select 3 – 5 existing academic disciplines to study according to:
    1. The recency of their establishment.
    2. Their similarity to life science disciplines according to one or more academic classification systems
      1. (“Academic Disciplines – Disciplines and the Structure of Higher Education, Discipline Classification Systems, Discipline Differences,” n.d.)
      2. (Biglan, 1973b)
      3. (Biglan, 1973a)
      4. (Stoecker, 1993)
      5. (Mark A. Alise, Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College & Authors, 2008)
    3. Their use of normative and positive analysis.

Note: for the purpose of illustration, the following is a list promising early candidates. They may be subject to change upon further research:

  • Conservation biology.
  • Artificial intelligence safety.
  • In vitro meat.
  • Animal welfare science.
  1. Review the literature on selected case studies.
    1. For the purpose of illustration, if conservation biology were to be one of our selected disciplines, we would review the following literature:
      1. (Soulé, 1985)
      2. (Groom, Meffe, Carroll, & Others, 2006)
      3. (Meine, Soulé, & Noss, 2006)
      4. (Franco, 2013)
  2. Where necessary, identify key figures and conduct qualitative interviews on the key steps in the growth of their field.
    1. For the purpose of illustration, if conservation biology were to be one of our selected disciplines we would interview at least one of the following individuals:
      1. Michael Soulé: leading organiser of the “First International Conference on Research in Conservation Biology” in 1978 and founding member (President) of the Society of Conservation Biology in 1985.
      2. Bruce Wilcox: leading organiser of the “First International Conference on Research in Conservation Biology” in 1978
      3. Peter Brussard: founding member (Secretary-Treasurer) of the Society of Conservation Biology in 1985.
      4. Martha Groom: co-author of “Principles of Conservation Biology” a leading textbook in conservation education published in 1994.
  3. Analyse findings with a focus on the following:
    1. Primary considerations:
      1. Events, activities or themes that appear in multiple case studies.
      2. Challenges or details specific to interdisciplinarity in the life sciences.
      3. Challenges or details specific to disciplines or subdisciplines with normative goals.
    2. Secondary considerations:
      1. Costs (in terms of resources) of establishing a field of research.
      2. Average length of time from early concerted efforts to recognition of a field of research.
      3. Most frequent sources of funding for early stage fields of research.
  4. Develop a strategy involving one or multiple paths based on findings to establish a field of research for WAS.

Impact of our findings

A valid concern for proponents of reducing wild-animal suffering is the absence of viable large scale interventions. Our approach considers how we can rapidly increase the quality and quantity of research to improve our understanding of the problem and design large-scale, net-positive interventions. The life sciences contain a number of disciplines where important empirical questions are being explored. However, to reduce wild-animal suffering we need to answers to both empirical questions and normative questions. That is to say, we need objective facts on the negative experiences of wild animals and we need to be evaluate how these experience affect the total well-being of those animals. The findings of this research project will contribute to three intermediate steps on our path to impact i.e., the actual reduction of wild-animal suffering.

Decrease talent constraints

Reducing wild-animal suffering, as a cause area, is highly neglected. It is both talent and funding constrained. For many, the fact that there are no clear solutions means the cause area is intractable. Talented researchers may be deterred from working on wild-animal suffering in its formative stages given its viability as a field of research is unclear. Similarly, skilled advocates may believe they will have more impact by supporting efforts to reduce firmly established problems. However, rather than stagnate, proponents of wild-animal suffering reduction can move forward by addressing one aspect of this neglectedness – talent constraint – in the hope that the more we learn about the problem the better positioned we become to identify solutions to it.

This research project will provide valuable information on how to establish an interdisciplinary field of research. In addition to increasing the quality and quantity of research and researchers i.e., alleviating the talent constraint, for the cause area, establishing WAS in academia is also likely to attract greater credibility and funding. Therefore, by conducting this foundational research project now we are investing currently limited resources in return for long-term movement growth. Learning from previous field growth means we can strategically apply tried and tested techniques to increase the impact of wild animal welfare advocates.

Inform further research

One of the biggest obstacles wild animal welfare advocates currently face is the absence of information. Disciplines such as zoology, ecology, veterinary science, and neurobiology (to name a few) contain valuable empirical information. However, canvassing all of this information, identifying promising ideas, identifying unresolved questions and then pursuing original research is a mammoth task. The Wild-Animal Suffering Research Agenda (“Agenda – Wild-Animal Suffering Research,” n.d.) seeks to prioritise some of these disciplines by outlining questions that if answered could be key to a breakthrough in large-scale interventions for wild animals. However our team is not comprised of domain experts. Additionally, the total pool of wild animal welfare advocates is absent of experts in life science research. With current resources, the margin of error is large and progress is slow. By targeting our outreach efforts at establishing WAS as a field of research in academia we have the potential to drastically speed up this process. Domain experts are better equipped to canvass their fields to identify the most promising research topics, contribute to a comprehensive research agenda, write peer-reviewed journal articles, offer PhD supervision and comment on a growing body of work to reduce wild-animal suffering. This research project will provide actionable information which, if implemented, could pave the way for more tractable research on WAS.

Inform the development of strategies to reduce wild-animal suffering

Acquiring more information about WAS is not in and of itself sufficient. The goal of learning more about the experiences of wild animals is to understand how we might be able to reduce their suffering and improve their wellbeing. Therefore, we need to be able to use research findings to identify new interventions or adjustments to existing interventions that have a large, cost-effective, net-positive impact. Increasing the quality and quantity of research by creating a field of research for WAS and building the movement of wild animal welfare advocates will be guided by this overarching goal. Indeed, the strategy we coalesce on as the most promising form of advocacy will be guided by what we believe to be the high information value of further research as well as the collective intelligence, experience and ingenuity of a highly competent movement.

Limitations

  1. Case studies of existing academic disciplines are not perfectly analogous to a field of research for wild-animal suffering.
  2. There may be no identifiable themes, or techniques that are transferable to WAS research.
  3. Existing qualitative research may conflate correlation with causation.
  4. There is an absence of comprehensive data on early research field growth. The project will focus on existing data supplemented by qualitative interviews with key figures in selected fields.
  5. Key figures may be difficult to contact and/or unwilling to be interviewed.

Project timeline

 TimeProgressExpenseAmount
240 hours (6 weeks)

This estimate is based on an assessment of the expected time to complete this type of project.
Literature researchPaid researcher (Persis Eskander) at $20 / hour$4800
50 hours

This estimate includes administrative tasks such as compiling a list of interviewees, organising interviews, and summarizing conversations.
Interviewing experts Paid researcher (Persis Eskander) at $20 / hour$1000
80 hoursReport completion and publication
Paid researcher (Persis Eskander) at $20 / hour
$1600
Total: 280 hours$7400

Acknowledgement

I would like to thank Ozy Brennan for their research proposal on welfare biology (Brennan, 2017) which I relied on to develop the focus and structure of this research project.

References

Academic Disciplines – Disciplines and the Structure of Higher Education, Discipline Classification Systems, Discipline Differences. (n.d.). Retrieved January 30, 2018, from http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/1723/Academic-Disciplines.html

Agenda – Wild-Animal Suffering Research. (n.d.). Retrieved January 31, 2018, from https://was-research.org/research-agenda/

Atkinson, J., & Crowe, M. (2006). Interdisciplinary Research: Diverse Approaches in Science, Technology, Health and Society. John Wiley & Sons. Retrieved from https://market.android.com/details?id=book-9Dhk13PpZn4C

Biglan, A. (1973a). Relationships between subject matter characteristics and the structure and output of university departments. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 57(3), 204. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/record/1974-01798-001

Biglan, A. (1973b). The characteristics of subject matter in different academic areas. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 57(3), 195. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/record/1974-01819-001

Brennan, O. (2017, November 25). Creating Welfare Biology: A Research Proposal – Wild-Animal Suffering Research. Retrieved January 30, 2018, from https://was-research.org/blog/creating-welfare-biology-research-proposal/

Franco, J. L. de A. (2013). The concept of biodiversity and the history of conservation biology: from wilderness preservation to biodiversity conservation. História (São Paulo), 32(2), 21–48. https://doi.org/10.1590/S0101-90742013000200003

Groom, M. J., Meffe, G. K., Carroll, C. R., & Others. (2006). Principles of conservation biology. Sinauer Associates Sunderland. Retrieved from http://www.semesteratsea.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Von-HippelF_BIOL3559_ConservBio.pdf

How Many Wild Animals Are There? | Essays on Reducing Suffering. (n.d.). Retrieved January 30, 2018, from http://reducing-suffering.org/how-many-wild-animals-are-there/

Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Sciences, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, & Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research. (2005). Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research. National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/11153

Jacobs, J. A., & Frickel, S. (2009). Interdisciplinarity: A Critical Assessment. Annual Review of Sociology, 35(1), 43–65. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-soc-070308-115954

Klein, J. T. (1990). Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory, and Practice. Wayne State University Press. Retrieved from https://market.android.com/details?id=book-4uM8fjxhjqsC

Kuhn, T. S. (2012). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition. University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from https://market.android.com/details?id=book-3eP5Y_OOuzwC

Mark A. Alise, Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College, & Authors. (2008). Disciplinary differences in preferred research methods: a comparison of groups in the Biglan classification scheme. Louisiana State University. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/gradschool_dissertations/2052/

Meine, C., Soulé, M., & Noss, R. F. (2006). “A Mission-Driven Discipline”: the Growth of Conservation Biology. Conservation Biology: The Journal of the Society for Conservation Biology, 20(3), 631–651. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2006.00449.x/full

Mitcham, C. (2010). The Oxford handbook of interdisciplinarity. Oxford: Oxford Uni.

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Ng, Y.-K. (1995). Towards welfare biology: Evolutionary economics of animal consciousness and suffering. Biology & Philosophy, 10(3), 255–285. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00852469

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Social Movement Analysis | Animal Charity Evaluators. (n.d.). Retrieved January 30, 2018, from https://animalcharityevaluators.org/research/social-movement-analysis/

Some Case Studies in Early Field Growth. (2016a, November 9). Retrieved January 30, 2018, from https://www.openphilanthropy.org/research/history-of-philanthropy/some-case-studies-early-field-growth

Some Case Studies in Early Field Growth. (2016b, November 9). Retrieved February 16, 2018, from https://www.openphilanthropy.org/research/history-of-philanthropy/some-case-studies-early-field-growth

Soulé, M. E. (1985). What is Conservation Biology?A new synthetic discipline addresses the dynamics and problems of perturbed species, communities, and ecosystems. Bioscience, 35(11), 727–734. https://doi.org/10.2307/1310054

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