Concrete next steps for ageing-based welfare measures

post by willbradshaw · 2019-11-01T14:55:03.431Z · score: 34 (15 votes) · EA · GW · 1 comments

Contents

  1. Development of new ageing measures in animals
    What is it?
    Why is it valuable?
    Who could do it?
  2. Exploring the ageing-welfare connection
    What is it?
    Why is it valuable?
    Who could do it?
  3. Applying AWMs to welfare questions
    What is it?
    Why is it valuable?
    Who could do it?
  4. Spreading awareness of AWMs
    What is it?
    Why is it valuable?
    Who could do it?
  What can a generalist do?
None
1 comment

Related: Assessing biomarkers of ageing as measures of cumulative animal welfare [EA · GW]

Several people have asked me how they or others can take the ideas from my previous post [EA · GW] on ageing-based measures of animal welfare forward and apply them to helping animals. Since I've now left WAI and won't be working on this further, I thought I'd draw a line under my involvement by quickly sketching out some ways I can see further work on this being valuable. This is not an organised research agenda; rather, it is a relatively unprioritised and informal list of things I would like to see happen in this space.

I would expect useful future work on ageing-based welfare measures (henceforth AWMs) to fall into four broad categories:

  1. Further development of biological ageing measures that are suitable for use as AWMs
  2. Theoretical or experimental work investigating the scope and limitations of AWMs
  3. Applying AWMs to investigating active uncertainties in animal welfare
  4. Outreach to spread awareness of AWMs among groups that could make use of them or develop them further

I’ll address each of these separately, but I expect many projects could attack two or more of these categories simultaneously.

1. Development of new ageing measures in animals

What is it?

There are many different ways of measuring biological age. Of these, telomere length seems to be by far the most widely used in nonhuman animals. As far as I know, telomere length and hippocampal volume (which I know much less about) are the only ageing metrics that have been applied specifically as measures of cumulative welfare.

I expect that other measures of biological ageing may turn out to be at least as useful as telomere length, and possibly more so in contexts where telomere length performs relatively poorly. It would therefore be good to see more work done to evaluate other biomarkers of ageing as potential welfare measures (in terms of comprehensiveness, cost, transferability, etc.), and to develop new, better ways of combining different biomarkers into effective composite measures.

One reason I think it would be particularly valuable for people with a specific interest in animal welfare to work in this space is because they will have different priorities from researchers whose primary goal is advancing human biomedical science. In particular, they will place greater weight on the cost and transferability of potential AWMs, as these will be of particular importance in funding-constrained animal contexts. Hence, state-of-the-art AWMs may well differ substantially from the methods that are currently best regarded in the ageing field.

Why is it valuable?

Who could do it?

A lot of the work in this area probably requires access to biological laboratory facilities and so would be restricted to researchers with that access, primarily academics. Nevertheless, initial work to identify promising biomarkers could be done through literature reviews and other approaches that do not require access to labs, and I expect development of new composite measures to benefit from data-science and machine-learning skills that are rare in traditional biological research groups, so there is definitely scope for others to contribute here as well.

2. Exploring the ageing-welfare connection

What is it?

The idea of measuring cumulative welfare using biological ageing is new, and the literature on the topic is small. It is still unclear exactly how broad the scope of these methods is or which approaches to measuring ageing for welfare are most promising. There is therefore broad scope for both theoretical and empirical research to provide valuable information on the potential of AWMs in general.

Some questions I would like to see addressed in the future include:

Which of these questions is of highest priority depends on one's focus; the validity of AWMs in invertebrates and animals with unusual ageing trajectories is much more important for those interested in wild-animal welfare, for example, while issues of genetic composition will be especially important for those interested in comparing the welfare of different domesticated strains.

Why is it valuable?

Who could do it?

Some of these questions could be best addressed by a theoretical analysis or literature review, while others would require novel biological experiments or a combination of different approaches. Individual researchers in an academic context, such as Masters students, would be well-placed to address many of these questions. Animal-focused EA researchers could also likely make headway in this space if they are analytically minded and have (or can acquire) a reasonable grounding in evolutionary biology.

3. Applying AWMs to welfare questions

What is it?

It would be good to start seeing applications of existing ageing-based welfare measures to uncertainties in animal welfare. WAI is in the process of developing projects that apply these techniques to wild-animal welfare, but I expect many of the most valuable early applications to relate to the welfare of captive animal populations.

Some key uncertainties I am aware of in this space include the relative welfare of caged versus cage-free chickens, the value of different approaches to improving the lives of farmed fish, and the relative welfare impacts of different forms of tagging and sampling in farmed and laboratory populations. I am sure people more actively involved in the animal-welfare movement would be aware of others.

The design of these experiments could be quite simple. Many could simply follow the template I set out in the original post: get two or more groups of animals living under different conditions, measure the biological age of individuals of different chronological ages, and plot the biological ageing curve for each population.

Why is it valuable?

Who could do it?

Performing these experiments would require a mixture of skills including animal handling, molecular biology and statistical analysis, as well as access to animal populations of interest and suitable laboratory facilities. Active collaborations with co-operative farms (or other animal facilities) and academic groups with the requisite expertise are likely to be critical.

Though I expect relatively few animal welfare organisations will have the necessary laboratory expertise or facilities to perform these experiments in-house, I can certainly envision a nonprofit organisation with an empirical focus and in-house data-analysis skills partnering with academic or industry collaborators to perform this work.

4. Spreading awareness of AWMs

What is it?

Currently, the the general level of awareness around AWMs is very low. I'm aware of a very small number of academics (and one nonprofit, WAI) doing research explicitly in this area, and a small number of other organisations have expressed tentative interest. This is a precarious situation; given this level of awareness, it would not be too surprising if these methods fail to be taken up and used widely in future.

High-quality outreach about these methods, which explains why they are potentially so valuable and how they could be of use to welfare scientists and organisations, therefore has the potential to be highly impactful, especially if further research suggests AWMs will live up to their current promise. This is what I am trying to do with these posts, and it is my hope that the word will spread further.

Why is it valuable?

Who could do it?

This may be an area where EA-aligned animal-welfare organisations could be particularly impactful, as they already have experience with outreach and connections with other organisations who could potentially make great use out of AWMs. Funding bodies interested in this area could also have an impact by specifically advertising their interest in proposals to advance this area (or other promising new methods for measuring welfare), therefore simultaneously raising awareness and creating the opportunity for further progress to be made.

What can a generalist do?

EA is long on generalist researchers and short on biologists. Many of the promising directions I've discussed here require access to a laboratory, or at least to biological expertise. However, there are several topics I think could benefit from immediate attention from animal-focused generalist researchers and organisations.

Firstly, as a researcher at WAI, my thinking about AWMs has been focused on their applications to wild-animal welfare. While I have discussed some examples of where I think these methods could be applied to domesticated animals, a more thorough review by someone with more knowledge of that area could be valuable, both to attract attention to the topic in that space and to help target future resources more effectively.

Secondly, given some reading up on evolutionary biology and comparative psychology, I think progress could be made on many of the questions in section 2 without access to a laboratory, both through focused literature reviews and greater theoretical scrutiny. A better idea of the strength and scope of the theoretical underpinnings of AWMs would be very valuable for directing research in the future. Topics I think could especially benefit from this include ageing in juveniles, the welfare-measurement potential of ageing biomarkers in insects and other invertebrates, and whether or not it is possible to use these methods to assess the welfare effects of genetic differences between groups. Progress could probably also be made on the relative potential of different currently-existing ageing metrics for use as AWMs in animals.

Finally, many animal-focused EA orgs have strong connections with other animal-welfare organisations, researchers and funders. Actively spreading the word about the potential of AWMs within their network represents one of best routes I can see to achieving more general awareness of, and investigation into, these promising new methods.

1 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by edoarad · 2019-11-01T18:16:54.482Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Strong upvote, since I think it is highly important to publish these kind of follow-up research questions or research agendas. Both to improve coordination/discussion and to offer more options for people who are interested in doing EA research. I also liked that there is a section on what generalists can do.