Animal Research: A New Era and a New Debate?

15/05/2014 15:38 BST | Updated 13/07/2014 10:59 BST


A culture of openness and transparency is fast becoming the expected norm in the arenas of science and healthcare. European Parliament approval for a new law requiring the results of clinical trials to be published, academics increasingly publishing work in free-to-access journals, and the ability of patients to compare the performance of their local hospital with others, are just a handful of recent developments.

Against this backdrop, and with recent polls suggesting a drop in public support for animal experiments, a range of organisations carrying out, funding or supporting animal research have developed a strategy on openness, backed by the UK Government, which they hope will improve 'public understanding' - and presumably acceptance - of 'how and why animals are used'. As the public directly or indirectly funds the majority of animal research, often without realising it, we at the RSPCA have long argued that they should have access to reliable information. Most of the actions within the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research - just launched - look to be of value on paper, but time will tell how well the signatories actually understand, value and fulfil these commitments.

One promise that stands out as having significant potential to contribute to a properly informed debate is to 'provide accurate descriptions of the benefits, harms and limitations of [animal] research, be realistic about the potential outputs of such research, and be open about its impact on animal welfare and the ethical considerations involved'. This is extremely important. All too frequently, emphatic statements hype the potential benefits of animal research, stating that in every case the use of animals is 'absolutely essential', that everything is always done to 'the highest possible standards' and that the animals involved rarely experience any suffering at all.

When the public then sees footage (usually released by animal protection organisations) showing lab animals involved in procedures that are clearly more invasive than the often quoted 'simple pin-prick' or 'a change in diet', or when they read that behind all the rhetoric the much heralded 'highest standards' are a long way from being met, they rightly question what they have previously been asked to believe. They discover that the proportion of animal research that actually relates to life-threatening diseases is far from the majority, that both funding and animals' lives are wasted as a result of poor quality research practices, and that the majority of compounds which look promising in animals fail to make it onto the shelves of our hospitals and pharmacies because benefits seen in animals have not translated into people.

In the public's mind, these two different representations of animal research seem just too far apart to swallow. As long as these inconsistencies and mismatches exist, many people will inevitably harbour suspicions that those using animals are presenting a glossed version of the truth, or will conclude that the research community must have a radically different view to them about what constitutes animal suffering or 'high standards'.

So what can we expect to see and hear as a result of this new initiative? To begin with, there must be genuine acknowledgement of the serious debate within the scientific community around the relevance and current value of many of the animal 'models' and tests traditionally used. There must also be an end to fatuous statements claiming to present both the harms and benefits of animal research, which do anything but.

We want to see a debate framed in terms of what is happening now, not whether the use of animals led to a scientific discovery or progress eighty or a hundred years ago. Science, technology, and concern for animals have all evolved significantly since then, and the debate must too. Why is a specific animal 'model' or study thought relevant or valid now? What contribution is a particular use of animals in research expected to make in today's world? What may lab animals experience as a result? Is everything possible genuinely being done in each case to avoid or reduce animal use and suffering, or are actions being affected by financial or other considerations?

Being open and honest means just that. It requires the showing of lab animals not only in their freshly cleaned cages or pens being fussed over by their carers, but also of what various scientific procedures and their effects actually entail. So, as well as the 'blood sampling' or 'change of diet' studies that many people are so keen to describe, the public should be able to see and hear about rats who undergo invasive surgery to implant neural recording devices into their brains, or those who experience symptoms of withdrawal in studies of drug addiction; the macaques held in restraint chairs and subject to water restriction; repeated oral dosing of toxic chemicals via tubes passed down the throats and into the stomachs of dogs; forced swim tests or 'learned helplessness' tasks for rodents involved in studies of anxiety or depression; and the control animals in vaccine studies who are exposed to diseases or infections like rabies or canine leptospirosis. The public should also see the processes (such as cutting part of the tail or ears from mice for DNA analysis, hormone injections, and invasive surgery to implant manipulated embryos) involved in creating and managing colonies of genetically altered animals - so commonly and disingenuously referred to as inconsequential in terms of their impact on animals and often dismissed as nothing more significant than 'breeding'.

It also means actually focusing the discussion on the animals being used in laboratories, not making an argument 'for' the use of animals in research by listing how many animals are run over on our roads, how many chickens we eat or the number of small rodents killed each year by our pet cats. This conveniently misses the point. What matters to an animal (and therefore to the people concerned about their welfare and suffering) is their own positive or negative experiences, not how many others are sharing their fate, or the 'reason' humans are causing them psychological or physical harm.

The Concordat states that 'the public deserves to know why and how animals are used on its behalf'. We agree. The value of this initiative will critically depend on how well the signatories actually implement its actions in practice. I sincerely do hope this heralds a new era of openness. The debate, the animals, and the public deserve better than a rebranded 'more of the same'.