The animal research industry has learnt the PR value of acknowledging the need to consign to history the overwhelming secrecy which governs its work. Chris Magee of the pro-animal research pressure group Understanding Animal Research (UAR), in his recent blog Your Chance to Tell Animal Researchers what Openness Looks Like to You, points to the recent declaration signed by over 40 organisations involved with animal research 'committing them to setting out how they would be more open about the ways in which animals are used ...'
But what does such verbiage actually mean? Will researchers agree to release the information which the public wants, or is this a cynical exercise in manipulation of opinion, pretending to be open but all the while retaining strict control over what information is published?
The portents are not good. At present, animal researchers have a veto over information they give the Home Office, which licenses experiments. This includes information which is not confidential, even information about their own wrongdoing. However, the veto does not extend to information held by universities and other public bodies which carry out animal experiments. That was established in a test case brought by the BUAV against Newcastle University (Newcastle, incidentally, spent over a quarter of a million pounds fighting release of information about very cruel brain experiments on monkeys).
In its evidence to the parliamentary Justice Select Committee last year, UAR, representing universities and funding bodies such as the Medical Research Council, argued that the veto should be extended to universities. In other words, in its brave new world, it wanted even more secrecy, not less. Researchers would then have total control over what information (if any) they choose to publish.
As Mr Magee explains, since then UAR has organised a number of focus groups, to find out what the public wants. Once again, UAR talked up openness. Surely, therefore, it had ditched the idea of a veto for universities? It appears not. The BUAV has repeatedly asked UAR to confirm a change in policy, but our requests have gone unanswered. The MRC, too, wants university researchers to have a veto.
This is a million miles from what the focus groups argued for. Ipsos MORI, the leading polling company, ran the groups. Crucially, participants saw a BUAV film of undercover investigations, showing the reality of life for animals in laboratories: they often suffer far more than researchers let on; avoidable suffering is not avoided (with animals routinely left unattended overnight after highly invasive surgery); and non-animal alternatives are often not used when they should be.
Participants thought that licences should be published, with names and genuinely confidential information deleted - precisely the BUAV's position. Only in this way can there be informed debate, and can the public and politicians hold the Home Office to account as to how it applies the law. There was support for CCTV in laboratories and shock at how around 20 inspectors police the four million plus experiments which, astonishingly, take place every year in the UK. Participants were also shocked at the extent of genetic manipulation of animals (which, despite the impression Mr Magee gives, often causes a high degree of suffering).
The problem is that, in an information vacuum, apologists for animal research have a free rein to run flawed arguments such as those Mr Magee's runs.
We do agree with his valedictory '[openness] is about giving the public the tools they need to come to their own conclusions based on good information, a broader understanding and an open attitude to talking about animal research'. Quite apart from animal welfare, transparency is crucial to human health. The real question, however, is whether animal researchers, as well as talking the talk, are prepared to walk the walk.