Billions of animals live in extremely painful conditions. But there are also hundreds of ways to help them. From methods as direct as rescuing a single animal from a horrible life, to means as wide-reaching as working with governments and corporations in order to set up long term policies for improving the lives of millions of animals. Given the ongoing suffering and all the possible ways to help, why would anyone concerned with animal issues choose to focus on something as abstract and long term as research?
Hundreds of years ago, the state of medicine was very different. There were doctors, but their understanding of how the human body worked was rudimentary and their tools were limited. The health of the populations they worked with suffered as a result. Doctors would save hundreds, but hundreds would also die due to infection or complications that the medicine of the time could not handle. Thankfully, a few individuals, some of them doctors that could have been saving a life every day instead of taking a step back, considered the problem in the long term. What tools could help not just this patient, but patients everywhere? They asked themselves, what pieces of knowledge could change the field of medicine as we know it? These individuals did not save a life the day they asked that question, but they saved thousands and millions of lives over time via better methodologies and tools (e.g. germ theory). Hospital policy changed, doctors around the world used the new knowledge, and the world as a whole benefited. Even if we lost those doctors’ contributions to more direct practice, in the long term they made a bigger difference. Our current understanding of animal issues is, sadly, very similar to where medicine was hundreds of years ago. We can carry out some helpful interventions, but there are large gaps in our understanding and very few people working on research focused on improving animal activists’ techniques and abilities. A doctor from 500 years ago would not be allowed to practice medicine today, for so many patients would suffer under their care. On that note, medicine is not unique, and many fields, particularly young ones, can benefit from having a portion of the experts in their field working on research. As a movement, we owe it to animals to spend our money and time in the best way possible.
Consider the following. Maybe, as an activist, I learned about these issues from a documentary and feel most compelled to make a documentary myself in order to show the mistreatment of certain species, but who am I really trying to help here - myself, or the animals? Animals do not care if it is a documentary or a flyer or a government lobbyist group that eventually improves their lives. They only care that their lives actually improve. In addition, consider that maybe the animal that was focused on in the movie (e.g. cows) is not, in fact, the most important animal to help as an animal rights advocate. I, like you, am not alone in this endeavour of helping animals. There is a huge community spanning the globe with thousands of people who care just as much as you and I do. Therefore, I need to consider what the most important thing to do is, given that certain actions could have a far greater effect than just the ones I personally see as impactful.
By doing research instead of aiming to help directly, animal activists can become far more effective. In case of animal issues, we currently have too few studies showing us what works and what does not, and it's hard to compare different interventions that an organization could undertake due to limited data. Of course, some research has been done. For example, in order to compare our charities’ interventions, we had to create a system to compare animal welfare. Animal Charity Evaluators estimated when clean meat might hit the market, and Open Philanthropy researched animal consciousness to determine how to compare different animals. Still, much more is needed, and meta-research could and should be conducted in order to determine how animal advocates and organizations should be investing their time and money.
This is not to say all research is equal, or that all research already done in the animal space is valuable; far from it. Our research needs to be as animal-focused and deliberate as our activism, if not more so. Doing good research and having animal activists update and upgrade their expectations and approaches could be the difference between a hundred or a thousand lives saved at the end of the day.
Not everyone is a perfect fit for research, but for those who are it is likely one of the most impactful things one could do to help animals in the long term. This reasoning is a big part of why CE is focusing on research, and why we are considering recommending a separate research charity, solely focused on animal issues, in our 2019 recommendation round.