Publics, pandemics, and the performance of ethical review

The Animal Research Nexus project developed an immersive performance for engaging publics with the ethics of animal research around an emerging disease. Bentley Crudgington talks to Gail Davies about happens when the staged event becomes a global emergency.


Vector is an interactive experience, which uses elements of performance, game, and integrated technology to open up dialogue about the ethical dilemmas of using animals as part of medical research. It was devised by the Animal Research Nexus creative facilitator Bentley Crudgington and the immersive theatre makers, TheLab Collective. At its core is a story of developing a vaccine for an unfolding pandemic, in which members of the public weigh up the issues around using animals in research.

Vector premiered in March 2019. A year later, and in the context of a Covid19 global pandemic, Gail Davies(Professor in Human Geography at the University of Exeter) (GD) asks Bentley Crudgington (BC) about the insights a creative simulation might offer for understanding how people grapple with the ethical issues around animal research and the potential impact of translating immersive methodologies from the psychical to the digital.

(GD) Can we set the scene by you talking me through the experience from the perspective of participants?

(BC) Vector invites up to thirty audience members at a time to participate in an ethical review board for the fictional biomedical research company, Biocore. In three groups of ten, participants will make a series of choices related to the use of animals in medical research developing a vaccine for a new zoonotic pandemic, caused by the virus, Xenna

Upon entering the space, Audiences are greeted by facilitator Dr Agnes Aber, split across three tables and then introduced to Biocore’s interactive AI system, AL, a digital character which takes the form of a large projected eye. Participants are introduced to the technology and software that will provide the contextual information they will use to make decisions and assess potential research pathways to develop a vaccine. 

Each team works together to review the information they are given taking into account the cost, likelihood of success and harm caused by the pathways available to them.  

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(GD) Can you explain the way people have approached these decision?

(BC) In getting to this moment participants have already made several decisions, but these have been rendered invisible by the structure and aesthetics of the experience. The first visible and active decision that a group makes is electing a spokesperson. It is suggested everyone briefly introduces themselves and shares their stance on the use of animals in medical research. This task helps make visible the formation of group dynamics and invites people to introduce any ethical or moral framework they feel is important. A common statement is “I am a vegan so obviously I…”. This is the first and last time people tend to state that anything is obvious. Later, however, in the post-show discussions they will speak with certainty about their new uncertainty.

There is a tonal shift in the room when teams start the process of selecting their research animal. It is a collective realisation that there is real work to be done and within this simulation they will have to negotiate some very difficult decisions.

There is a lot of variation in how people begin this process. Groups scroll through the document containing the animal profiles: macaques, pigs, mice, fish, “biomatter”. As they read aloud, they bring each animal to the table for consideration. Immediate and intuitive judgements from individuals remove animals as quickly as they are added. The scale of a pandemic allows others to invite the excluded back in.

What follows is a negotiation of what success could look like, what harms achieving that success may do and a scale to measure these against. Participants are unaware but they are already deeply involved in a harm benefit analysis.

Groups are given a budget but at this stage economic cost does not seem to be a priority. On occasion groups have divided the number of animals by the total cost to calculate the price of an individual animal. To the observer, it appears that economics is a last resort when people feel they must add an empirical robustness to what might otherwise appear as purely emotional responses.

Each animal, at some point, has been excluded but the options that receive the greatest attention are macaques and “biomatter”. Macaques are often excluded for being too like us; participants easily recognise their level of sentience and ability to experience pain. Biomatter is excluded for being too unlike us; too inert. It would appear that you do not need bones to become contentious.

(GD) How does Vector help people to articulate their thoughts about these difficult decisions? What sort of feedback do people get during the performance and at the end of Vector?

(BC) A primary aim was to try and take discussions out of the hypothetical and towards the embodied. It felt essential that participants had to make decisions and then experience the consequences of those decisions. If attitudes to animal research are contingent, then you need to provide a framework that allows for reframing

Behind vector is a huge decision-making matrix. Each decision triggers an information cascade which can appear as protocols, reports, emails, social media, reports from multiple sources. You may receive a summary of the latest scientific findings from the Principal Investigator, you may get a personal email from an Animal Technologist, you could receive a fretful request from Jenny from PR. The information received is dependent on the previous decision.

There are three rounds of decision-making. Every decision has been allocated a figure for cost, harm, and success within the matrix. These scores are tallied up and given back to the groups in a summary report at the end of each round. The spokesperson from each team then shares with the room the decisions the team made, how they were made, and the scores these produced. The format allows access to and interaction with decision and meaning making at an individual, team, and group level. It also ensures each participant has a unique objective and subjective experience.

In the final stage of Vector, the scores from each table are taken into an open discussion to select the research protocol to be taken forward by Biocore.

(GD) When you were putting Vector together with the Lab Collective, why did you focus on a pandemic?

There were three main reasons for using a zoonotic pandemic setting. The first is the scale. The size and complexity of a pandemic holds space for multiple nuanced storylines, it allowed multiple framings of how animal and human health are connected, and how terms such as harm and success and patient and care change as they are moved about within those frameworks.

Secondly, it allowed us to use a familiar trope to lure people in (science and technology as tools in a global crisis) and then make it unfamiliar (the research animal as both the science and the technology).

The third reason was as a narrative tool as it installs a sense of urgency that can be utilised to drive decision-making. People do not materialise in front of a decision; they arrive at it. What they arrive with and how they participate in the process of making that decision are influenced by how they are used to participating in the world. Vector doesn’t just give people a seat at the table, it allows them to bring whatever they want to the table. Introducing urgency at the beginning allowed time limits to be placed on decision-making in a way that drives the experiences forward without shutting things down.

(GD) Do you think it makes a difference that people were focusing their discussions of animal research around an emerging disease?

(BC) The pandemic framing does not ease decision-making, it doesn’t make things more obvious and it doesn’t alleviate any burden – participants still struggle to define what harm and success mean to them. What this framing allows is those definitions to be examined at different scales and asks if a harm/benefit ratio can be fixed or if it is always contingent on the people in the room making that decision on that day.

One question that was asked in the debrief sessions was “Do you think you would have made different decisions if the research goal has been different, e.g. cancer or dementia? Participants universally answered “Yes”, but the qualifying reasons varied profoundly. Some speak to the appropriateness of the model, some to the longevity of the research and some to considerations of the quality of human and animal life.

Personally, I think it is even more complex. Pandemics can be personal; it depends on whose world you mean. A pandemic is both an event and a metaphor whose scale depends on your subjective embodied experience. Your health status and efforts to live and be well can connect you to others with a similar health status. If caring for yourself and others within these health communities forms a larger and larger part of your world, then every decision is urgent and even statistically rare disease can feel like a pandemic.

(GD) Vector hasn’t run since the WHO declaration of a global pandemic and the lockdown of the UK. What would it mean to stage Vector again now, given the context we are in and the questions we are facing?

(BC) Vector operates within its own world. In some respect it is a model of this world, in others it is not. It has been said that all models are wrong, but some are useful. At some point you have to decide what to leave out; to include all the detail would require it to be life sized, and then that is pointless. Vector was designed under the broader aim of changing the culture of communication that surrounds animal research. It is set in a pandemic but that it not the focus.

The experience does question power hierarchies and ask who is best placed to give evidence and asks where they derive authority from. It does not bring in shifting political priorities nor does it address blame or racism. The economics of research are addressed, with options to share data, collaborate or operate independently. What is not currently explicitly addressed are the reallocation of resources or the differences between private, public, and philanthropic funding streams. Although quality of life and death are permanently present, with regard to animal lives, Vector does not explore the potential inequalities that contribute these in humans. Vector uses a pandemic as a design tool to get people talking about animal research, it does not intentionally use the research animal as a tool to discuss pandemics or vaccine design.

If you want true and meaningful engagement, it is vital that you respect what participants bring to the table. The current geopolitical climate will mean participants will now bring new things, or the same things will now feel different. Vector does take a culture of care seriously and that includes the care needs of the participants and performers. We do, however, need to appreciate that those care needs have likely changed and we will need to redesign to meet them.

(GD) Given the current restrictions on meeting, what do you think the prospect for this sort of immersive engagement methodology might be in the short-term?

(BC) Moving things online is not a simple task. There are things that simply cannot be re-created in the digital, in the same way as there are digital freedoms that cannot be made flesh. There are many things to consider and approach critically.

Vector is based on an Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Board but does not seek to recreate one. There are a lot of online tools that can be used to bring people together. However, many have been designed to replicate a meeting and therefore come with built in barriers, biases and privileges that have serious consequences for the aesthetic encounter, which is also important in decision-making.

Online platforms prioritise unidirectional sound which destroys the sonic atmosphere of a hubbub. The staging of vector deliberately isolates tables with light but keeps the teams close enough that they are aware of other voices existing in disagreement and struggling with decision-making. This is then layered with music and sound effects that help influence the pace of decision-making. If a participant takes moment of personal silence to consider something, it is softened by the wider sonic environment. While silence is part of the natural architecture of decision-making, isolated from other sounds and placed online, it is experienced and interpreted very differently.

There is also the very physical component of being in a room together. It reminds us we are vectors, by nature of having a body we are dangerous but also vulnerable and reliant on how other people decide to use their bodies in relation to yours. Perhaps that closeness and vulnerability would feel unbearable now?

This interview was edited with the Lab Collective for clarity and content.

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Bentley Crudgington is Creative Facilitator and Producer based in Manchester with a particular focus on changing the culture of communication that currently frames the use of animals in human health and wellbeing. Bentley’s role is to develop, drive and facilitate innovative and meaningful public engagement across the animal research nexus.

Gail Davies is a Professor in Human Geography at the University of Exeter. Her work is located at the intersection of human geography, science and technology studies, and animal studies. Gail’s work on the animal research nexus involves understanding changing patient expectations and engagements with animal research. This builds on interests in how translational and personalised medicine are changing the nature of ethics and experiments.

Animal Research Nexus: Animal research is contingent on a complex network of social relations and ethical obligations across science and society. The Animal Research Nexus Programme is a five year (2017-2022) collaborative award funded by the Wellcome Trust. It is jointly led by researchers from anthropology, geography, history, science and technology studies, and sociology at the Universities of Exeter, Manchester, Nottingham, Oxford, and Southampton. We are working with stakeholders to understand the complex entanglements between policy and practice that make up the Animal Research Nexus.  Our latest paper https://mh.bmj.com/content/early/2020/02/19/medhum-2019-011778

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