Coalition government is intrinsically difficult, with key party priorities liable to founder on the need to achieve agreement in detail. All the more reason, one might think, for the Government to forge ahead in areas where the parties entirely agree. One such area is a reduction in experiments on animals.
Widely seen in the Victorian era as the only way to guess at human biology, the advance of non-animal alternative tests and a greater awareness of the ethics involved in exploiting animals has led to serious disquiet about animal experiments. The websites of pharmaceutical companies assure readers that they want to phase out animal experiments as quickly as they can; experiments on animals to test the safety of cosmetics are illegal throughout the EU (with a potential full ban on the import of animal tested cosmetics to follow next year); many alternatives such as artificial skin have proved to simulate human biology better than the traditional rabbit tests.
Both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos promised to promote reductions in animal experiments, and also to end testing of household products on animals. And in the Coalition agreement a commitment duly appeared:
"We will end the testing of household products on animals and work to reduce the use of animals in scientific research."
In the early days of the Government, this was followed up by promising-sounding statements. Home Office Minister Lynne Featherstone announced that the household ingredients would cover both products and basic ingredients and include "all products that are primarily intended for use in the home, including detergents and other laundry products, household cleaners, air-fresheners, toilet blocks, polishes, paper products such as infant nappies, paints, glues (and removers), other furnishing and DIY products and household pesticides," and promised a detailed statement on how the Government would be tackling the reduction plan.
However, both commitments appear to have gone mysteriously AWOL. A much more hesitant ban on household product testing is in prospect with the government recently suggesting the wording would be "the prior consent of the Secretary of State [will be] required for the testing of household products, which is likely only to be forthcoming in an exceptional case." And far from a reduction in the number of "procedures" (animal experiments), the number - 3,792,857 - is now the highest since the current system of counting began in 1986, and is rising. Even experiments with accepted non-animal alternatives, such as skin irritation, are increasing again.
Meanwhile, the European Union agreed a Directive to level up standards for animal tests throughout the EU. Transposing this into UK law gives the Government another opportunity to make a start on its reduction strategy. It could choose to rule out the more extreme experiments set out in the Directive such as the total isolation of primates and dogs, the destruction of an animals' immune systems, repeated electric shocks to induce "learned helplessness", forced swimming tests to exhaustion, and much more. It could, at least, open up Britain's system of research licensing - one of the most secretive in Europe - and allow anonymised disclosure of the details of experiments so that a mature debate could follow. Instead, the Government has declined to rule out the extreme tests, postponed yet again a decision on disclosure and even flirted with allowing tests on stray cats and dogs before a storm of opposition finally elicited a policy (but not legislative) commitment not to allow them.
Without a government lead, the trend is likely to continue - not because researchers are necessarily desperate to use animals, but because the funding for alternatives to animal testing is so limited even while the overall science budget has increased. Dr Mark Prescott of the UK's National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) says openly that the centre "could do very much more if we had a larger budget, without a doubt. Our budget is small in comparison with the major funders." In the absence of a clear Government lead, researchers are left with the mind-set that the old animal methods should continue. The result will be that Britain falls behind its competitors as the world changes around us and we remain wedded to the techniques of the 19th century.
So, how would a coherent reduction strategy look at a time of budget cuts? A few possibilities:
1. Publish project licences under the Freedom of Information Act - with names removed along with anything that affects commercial confidentiality. The cost of this - already the norm in much of Scandinavia - would be close to zero, and it would allow an informed ethical and scientific debate on what animal experiments can now be replaced.
2. Setting limits to what types of experiment will be permitted, excluding the most extreme forms of suffering.
3. Conduct a public consultation on limits to genetic modification of animals who are designed to suffer - the largest growth area, and one of the least debated.
The question, though, is whether the Government actually wants a strategy at all?
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