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Undark Magazine is a non-profit, editorially independent digital magazine exploring the intersection of science and society.
photo of a woman injecting liquid into a test tube
Rachel E. Gross

Injecting Feminism Into Science Is A Good Thing — For Science

Feminists have generated a set of tools to make science less biased and more robust. Why don’t more scientists use it?


In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, a mystery played out across news headlines: Men, it seemed, were dying of infection at twice the rate of women. To explain this alarming disparity, researchers looked to innate biological differences between the sexes — for instance, protective levels of sex hormones, or distinct male-female immune responses. Some even went so far as to test the possibility of treating infected men with estrogen injections.

This focus on biological sex differences turned out to be woefully inadequate, as a group of Harvard-affiliated researchers pointed out earlier this year. By analyzing more than a year of sex-disaggregated COVID-19 data, they showed that the gender gap was more fully explained by social factors like mask-wearing and distancing behaviors (less common among men) and testing rates (higher among pregnant women and health workers, who were largely female).

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photo of a young man on a dock reading
Katie C. Reilly

Grief As Mental Illness? Some Hard Questions About 'PGD' Diagnosis

Prolonged Grief Disorder (PGD) has officially been recognized as a mental health disorder. The decision could do more harm than good.

The weekend that I graduated from law school, my mother told me that she had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neurological disease for which there is currently no cure. As I recalled in a recent essay, I spent the following year watching as her muscles atrophied until she died.

A year and a half later, my father was diagnosed with cancer. He successfully completed one round of chemotherapy, but then, less than two years later, the cancer returned, killing him within months. He died on Aug. 12, my mother’s birthday.

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Photo of a scientist looking at an insect in a laboratory in the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology in Munich, Germany
Katarina Zimmer*

Less Than A Rat? The Case For Treating Insects More Humanely In Lab Research

Opening bee skulls. Electric shocks for cockroaches. Some researchers want to grant more invertebrates ethical consideration, questioning long-held assumptions on consciousness.


Bees have long impressed behavioral scientist Lars Chittka. In his lab at Queen Mary University of London, the pollinators have proven themselves capable of counting, using simple tools, and learning from nestmates. What really surprised Chittka, however, were the nuances of the insects’ behavior.

In 2008, for instance, a study from Chittka’s lab looked at how bumblebees reacted to a simulated attack by a fake spider on a flower. The bumblebees later approached suspect flowers cautiously and sometimes left even spider-less flowers quickly “as if they were seeing ghosts,” Chittka recalled. By contrast, the bees were seemingly more upbeat after receiving a sugar treat.

To Chittka, these observations defy a long-held view that insects are robot-like, controlled by hard-wired cognitive programs. Rather, the bees’ behavior seemed to be influenced by subjective experience — a perception of pleasant and unpleasant. Chittka said he increasingly suspects “there’s quite a rich world inside their minds.”

Early in his career, Chittka never protested when his colleagues opened bees’ skulls and inserted electrodes to study their nervous system. But he now wonders whether such procedures might create “potentially very unpleasant situations” for the insects. Like most invertebrates — any animal without an internal skeleton — insects tend to be legally unprotected in research. Regulations intended to minimize suffering in vertebrates like rodents largely don’t apply.

Rethinking research ethics

Some countries have already improved the welfare of select invertebrates, such as octopus, squid, crabs, and lobster. But there’s disagreement over whether other invertebrate species — a kaleidoscopically diverse cast of animals — also deserve protection. Some scientists believe species with relatively simple brains, like insects, or perhaps even those with no central nervous system at all, also deserve ethical consideration, although the details are under debate.

None of the experts who spoke with Undark argued that research on these invertebrate species should stop. Some organisms, including widely used species of fruit flies or nematode worms, have long led to breakthroughs in genetics, cell development, and other biological processes, and have played important roles in roughly a fifth of Nobel Prizes for Physiology or Medicine that were based on animal research. Many scientists are also shifting their research from vertebrates to invertebrates to avoid ethical bureaucracy associated with animal welfare regulation.

Still, recent research is prompting some scientists to rethink traditional research ethics. As Adam Hart, an entomologist at the University of Gloucestershire, put it: “I think we are at a point where people are willing to entertain the idea that perhaps ethics isn’t just something for animals with backbones.”

Whether an animal has a spine shouldn’t be the criterion for its moral status.

The rationale to legally protect animals in scientific research typically rests on their presumed ability to feel pain and suffer — one facet of consciousness, or sentience. Nearly all animals are capable of physically detecting injuries and displaying reflexes to avoid a threat. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they experience pain, which is not just a sensory experience, but a cognitive, conscious experience of harm and suffering.

Establishing that an animal experiences pain is tricky, but there are some behavioral clues that go beyond simple reflexes — including coping mechanisms like nursing wounds and learning from previous injuries. “It’s kind of complicated,” said animal behaviorist Jennifer Mather of the University of Lethbridge. “But we can get a decent idea of whether they have something that we would call pain if it were in us.”

Scientists have long observed that vertebrates display behaviors consistent with a conscious experience of pain, like avoiding places where they’ve been harmed or withdrawing from social activity. Legislation to protect vertebrates dates back to at least 1876, when British parliament passed the Cruelty to Animals Act. Today, in many countries, regulations mandate that the use of vertebrates in research be scientifically justified, and limits any possible suffering. Standing committees at universities and research institutions typically provide oversight, reviewing research proposals and deciding whether a specific approach is justified.

Cephalopods and sentience

But invertebrates have historically been deemed incapable of conscious experiences like pain. The resulting scarcity of regulations means that for most invertebrate species, there’s not much to stop scientists from, say, using large numbers of individuals for a particular experiment, amputating limbs without using anesthetic, keeping them in cramped containers, or dissecting them live. Invertebrates are largely left “open to do whatever you want with them,” Mather said.

Yet some scholars have questioned this binary classification. As two philosophers of science, Irina Mikhalevich and Russel Powell, argued in a 2020 commentary, lumping invertebrates together reflects an outdated interpretation of evolution as a ladder of increasing complexity where spineless creatures rank lower. This idea is morally inconsistent with a growing body of research on the cognitive abilities of insects and certain other invertebrates. Whether an animal has a spine shouldn’t be the criterion for its moral status, said Mikhalevich: “It should be what kind of capacities they have to suffer, to experience joys, pleasures, pains.”

Some countries have acknowledged this for a group of invertebrates called cephalopods, comprising octopuses, squid, cuttlefish, and nautiluses. Cephalopods, which are popular subjects in neuroscience, are known for their intelligence and large, complex nervous systems. They also meet the behavioral criteria some scientists use to determine sentience, including experiencing pain, Mather said. For instance, evolutionary neuroscientist Robyn Crook at San Francisco State University has found that octopuses will cradle an injured arm, swim towards areas of a tank doused in pain-numbing substances like lidocaine, and avoid locations where they’ve previously experienced harm. In recent decades, Canada, Australia, the European Union, and New Zealand have granted cephalopods similar protections as vertebrates. (Cephalopods are not protected under U.S. law but many university ethical committees nevertheless treat them like vertebrates.)

Although crustaceans — including crab, lobster, and crayfish — generally have much smaller brains than cephalopods, there’s similarly strong evidence that they also experience pain, Crook said. Because of this, a few countries have also included certain crustaceans under the regulatory umbrella. This happened most recently in the United Kingdom after a group of philosophers tasked by British lawmakers concluded that these species are sentient, a recognition long called for by some advocacy groups. In particular, some crustaceans can suppress pain in exchange for a reward, suggesting that their reaction to harmful things isn’t purely a reflex: Hermit crabs, for instance, tend to abandon a poor-quality shell upon receiving an electric shock, but they’ll tolerate the shock for an especially attractive shell.

Photo of someone grabbing an insect with tweezers

What should insects-related ethical standards look like?

Tobias Hase/DPA/ZUMA

Robot-like reflexes

A 2021 review counted only one country — Norway — that regulates research on insects, namely honeybees. But Chittka and others argue that, much like cephalopods and crustaceans, insects also exhibit sentience and should be similarly protected. For instance, in recent experiments of Chittka’s that are yet to be peer-reviewed, he observed bumblebees making similar trade-offs as hermit crabs, choosing to sit on a very hot surface if it contained a particularly sweet dollop of sugar water.

Other scientists still think that many insect behaviors are more consistent with robot-like reflexes. In the 1960s, British researchers showed that decapitated cockroaches moved their legs to avoid an electric shock. Similarly, locusts will continue feeding while being eaten by predators, while cockroaches have been observed devouring their own guts. "I think this shows insects don't have the same sense of self, minimally,” remarked Shelley Adamo, a behavioral physiologist at Dalhousie University. While auto-cannibalism isn’t unusual in the insect world, she said, that doesn’t necessarily mean insects don’t react to painful stimuli. “But hunger may trump that,” she continued. “And they don’t have the cognition to recognize and look and go, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s me. They just say ‘protein, eat.’” In addition, Adamo doubts that tiny insect brains — similar in size and complexity to crustacean brains — can support the neural infrastructure required for rich, subjective experiences. But perhaps, Mather added, size isn’t a good indicator for cognitive capabilities in insects.

As it stands, most scientists probably don’t see a need to make ethical considerations with insects, said evolutionary biologist Chris Freelance of the University of Melbourne. But he sees an ethical responsibility to take a precautionary approach — that is, to treat them as if they do feel pain until proven otherwise. After all, he said, “we would absolutely adopt the precautionary principle if it was a fluffy furry thing or something with feathers.” In 2019, Freelance published ethics recommendations for other insect researchers, including adopting a widely-used framework in vertebrate studies called the 3R guidelines: Use other models, such as dead insects, wherever possible (replacement), use only the numbers strictly necessary (reduction), and avoid or minimize experiments that could cause pain (refinement).

Even neuroscientist Matthew Cobb of the University of Manchester, who said he doubts insects are conscious, on principle tries to limit harm to the fruit flies he studies. In the past he has let excess flies, which hadn’t been genetically altered, buzz out the window instead of killing them. And when he does have to euthanize flies, instead of drowning them in alcohol — which “looks kind of sad,” he said — he’ll put them into a chill coma in a fridge. If anything, he added, allowing animals to live as naturally as possible could help produce better-quality data.

Such moral predicaments are acute in entomology, which frequently involves trapping, killing, and dissecting wild insects in order to properly identify them — often as part of studies that inform conservation efforts. But some entomologists have begun to question the approach, Hart said. He’s cut down on training students in the Victorian era-practice of killing large numbers of insects and sticking them on pins, only doing so upon request. In 2019, Hart and his colleagues also encouraged using the 3R framework in entomological research, alongside using non-lethal and selective traps to avoid catching non-target species. The guidelines were partly motivated by what he sees as mounting interest among the public — at least in the U.K. — in the welfare of insects.

"Overwhelming" bureaucracy

But does it matter how insects are treated in science, when, every day, agricultural insecticides kill countless pests and people swat fruit flies and cockroaches in their kitchens? Cobb argued that, yes, research should be subjected to higher ethical standards, for one because, in his view, the public — who funds most research — are particularly concerned about the welfare of lab animals. Another difference is that research scientists deliberately experiment on individual animals, rather than indiscriminately spraying fields. Crook added that, unlike in agriculture, scientists only interact with a few animals at a time, so they can afford to treat them as humanely as possible.

The question, then, becomes what those ethical standards should look like. Some scientists, including Chittka, argue that insects should receive some form of regulatory protection — although, as Mather added, not necessarily the same protection as granted to vertebrates; each species is different and deserves the protection that fits it best, she said.

The European Union’s 2011 decision to expand vertebrate protections to cephalopods showed the challenges with a one-size-fits-all approach, as the laws encouraged the use of anesthetic substances to both immobilize subjects and curb their pain — even though there were no known anesthetics for the animals at that time. And while scientists can identify when lab rats are in pain, it’s not yet clear how to do the same with insects (if they do feel pain), let alone how to lessen suffering, Freelance said: “There would be no possible way you could comply with those regulations.”

It’s good practice for junior researchers to cultivate respect for the lives in their care, however small.

From Crook’s point of view, regulations should be as cautious and as specific to the cognitive abilities of each species as they can be. There might be appropriate ways of protecting invertebrates with even simpler nervous systems, like sea slugs or worms. “I think it would be good to move towards a slightly more expansive way of considering animal welfare and ethics,” she said, “that perhaps takes into account that animals are not all or nothing, and there’s probably shades of experience out there.”

But she acknowledged that more regulation might be a hard sell in the U.S. in particular, which has even exempted some vertebrates like lab rats from regulation. Nor is the idea popular among scientists who have recently switched to using invertebrate models to avoid what Freelance describes as “overwhelming” bureaucracy in vertebrate science. A greater regulatory burden on researchers would only stifle scientific innovation in the eyes of Kirk Leech, the executive director of the European Animal Research Association, which advocates for animal research. To him, the moral case for using animals in science — especially vertebrates, which he considers more useful research subjects — should be prioritized.

Indeed, precautionary regulation could come at a big cost if it ends up restricting work relevant to human welfare, like curbing disease-causing pests, Adamo added, whose research includes finding efficient ways to kill ticks. For pests, he said “we want to be careful that we don’t put barriers in the way of regulating insect populations, because if we don’t, humans that we know suffer will suffer terribly.”

Cultural changes

Perhaps, Freelance suggested, scientific journals could create a new path forward. Most journals already require their authors to follow laws and ethical requirements in their own countries, but some have gone a step further. The journal Animal Behavior, one of the leaders in its field, has created its own ethical principles — even for some invertebrates — regardless of whether study subjects are legally protected. If more journals adopted such standards, that could encourage more scientists to adapt, Freelance said via email, “as their publication options would be very limited if they decided to follow no ethical standards at all when it came to studying insects.”

Compared to legislators, journal editors would be more flexible in setting ethical standards, too, ensuring that they are feasible for scientists and could adapt to new understanding of invertebrate consciousness. Aaron Ellison, the executive editor of the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, which published Hart’s paper, agreed there could be a role for journals in raising the ethical standards. However, he added, “I don’t know if there is enough support yet in the community to require it.”

In the meantime, cultural changes might influence the way researchers handle invertebrates, Adamo said. Although she doesn’t believe the insects in her lab are conscious, she still chills her caterpillars for invasive experiments. Beyond any possible benefits to the caterpillars, she thinks it’s good practice for junior researchers to cultivate respect for the lives in their care, however small. “It almost doesn’t matter what they feel or don’t feel,” she said, “but I think it’s important to just be respectful.”

*Katarina Zimmer is a science journalist. Her work has been published in The Scientist, National Geographic, Grist, Outside Magazine, and more.

This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.

End Of Roe v. Wade Is Major Blow For Prenatal Genetic Screening
Sara Reardon KHN

End Of Roe v. Wade Is Major Blow For Prenatal Genetic Screening

For families learning their child will be born with a debilitating condition, new legal issues create additional trauma.

Ann was 15 weeks pregnant with her fourth child when the results of her prenatal genetic test came back last August. The test suggested that her daughter, whom she and her husband planned to name Juliet, was missing one of her two X chromosomes — a condition called Turner syndrome that can cause dwarfism, heart defects, and infertility, among other complications.

Many people decide to terminate their pregnancies after this diagnosis, a genetic counselor told Ann and her husband. But the counselor had more bad news: In two days, the family would no longer have that option in their home state of Texas. A law, in effect as of Sept. 1, 2021, allows anyone to sue those who assist any person in getting an abortion in Texas after six weeks’ gestation — and the state provides a $10,000 bounty to plaintiffs if they win. The genetic counselor told Ann she could no longer discuss termination with her for this reason.

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Blackfeet Indians horse-riding in reservation​
Aaron Bolton*

On A Montana Indian Reservation, The Opioid Crisis Has Hit Harder

The overdose death rate among Indigenous people was the highest of all racial groups in the first year of the pandemic.

As the pandemic was setting in during summer 2020, Justin Lee Littledog called his mom to tell her he was moving from Texas back home to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana with his girlfriend, stepson, and son.

They moved in with his mom, Marla Ollinger, on a 300-acre ranch on the rolling prairie outside Browning and had what Ollinger remembers as the best summer of her life. “That was the first time I’d gotten to meet Arlin, my first grandson,” Ollinger said. Another grandson was soon born, and Littledog found maintenance work at the casino in Browning to support his growing family.

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NanoRacks-Remove Debris satellite deployed into space by the ISS
Thomas Lewton

Artificial Satellite Pollution, Perils For Biodiversity In Space And On Earth

Exploiting space resources and littering it with satellite and other anthropogenic objects is endangering the ecosystem of space, which also damages the earth and its creatures below.

Outer space isn’t what most people would think of as an ecosystem. Its barren and frigid void isn’t exactly akin to the verdant canopies of a rainforest or to the iridescent shoals that swim among coral cities. But if we are to become better stewards of the increasingly frenzied band of orbital space above our atmosphere, a shift to thinking of it as an ecosystem — as part of an interconnected system of living things interacting with their physical environment — may be just what we need.

Last month, in the journal Nature Astronomy, a collective of 11 astrophysicists and space scientists proposed we do just that, citing the proliferation of anthropogenic space objects. Thousands of satellites currently orbit the Earth, with commercial internet providers such as SpaceX’s Starlink launching new ones at a dizzying pace. Based on proposals for projects in the future, the authors note, the number could reach more than a hundred thousand within the decade. Artificial satellites, long a vital part of the space ecosystem, have arguably become an invasive species.

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Woman sweeping her house in India.​
Qadri Inzamam and Haziq Qadri

The Digital Tracking Of India's Sanitation Workers Is An Extra Dirty Deal

Lower-caste cleaners must wear GPS-enabled smartwatches, raising questions about their privacy and data protection.

Munesh sits by the roadside near a crowded market in Chandigarh, a city in India’s north, on a January day. She is flanked by several other women, all of them sweepers hired by the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation. She shows the smartwatch she is wearing and says, “See, I didn't even touch it, but the camera has turned on."

Munesh, who estimates she is in her 40s and, like many Indians, goes by just one name, is one of around 4,000 such sanitation workers. The corporation makes it mandatory for them to wear smartwatches — called Human Efficiency Tracking Systems — fitted with GPS trackers. Each one has a microphone, a SIM embedded for calling workers, and a camera, so that the workers can send photos to their supervisors as proof of attendance.

In Chandigarh, this project is run by Imtac India, an IT services company, at a cost of an estimated $278,000 per year. Meanwhile, sanitation workers say that the government has not invested in personal protective gear throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, and that they have long worked without medical care and other vital social services.

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How A Dutch Clinic Pioneered Pediatric Transgender Healthcare, Through 40 Years Of Criticism
Frieda Klotz

How A Dutch Clinic Pioneered Pediatric Transgender Healthcare, Through 40 Years Of Criticism

Since its founding in the 1970s, the Amsterdam-based Center of Expertise on Gender Dysphoria has been working with often very young children and their parents to address gender identity issues. Their model has been both adopted and widely criticized around the world.

AMSTERDAM — Relationships between patients and physicians last a long time at Amsterdam’s Center of Expertise on Gender Dysphoria. Some of today’s adult patients have been visiting the clinic since the age of 5, when their parents first noticed signs of gender dysphoria — the experience of distress that can occur when a person’s gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. For some very young children, the negative feelings subside with the passage of time and they no longer identify as transgender. But for other children, the distress persists into the years leading up to puberty.

These youth can come to the clinic to discuss embarking on a treatment protocol that begins with a diagnostic phase that lasts around six months. During this time, the young people speak with clinicians, fill out questionnaires, and receive mental health support. After that, youth who are interested in a medical transition will be prescribed puberty blockers. From there, they may need to wait a couple of years until becoming eligible for hormones that initiate the development of secondary sex characteristics aligned with their gender identity. At 16, individuals assigned female at birth can get mastectomies. At 18, patients can meet with their physicians to discuss other gender-affirming surgeries, such as hysterectomies, vaginectomies, and phalloplasties (the surgical construction of a penis) for trans men, and vaginoplasties (the surgical construction of a vagina) for trans women.

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