17/07/2012 14:20 BST | Updated 16/09/2012 06:12 BST

Home Office Stats Shine a Light on Animal Research

In this document, each experiment is termed a "procedure". Roughly 3.8 million procedures are undertaken each year and some animals can be used for more than one procedure.

Recently, the BUAV's Michelle Thew, who campaigns against animal research, asked "wouldn't it be nice if the debate about animal experiments could be based on what is really involved?"

Helpfully, the Home Office has just released its annual statistics demonstrating how many animals of what type are used for what purpose.

In this document, each experiment is termed a "procedure". Roughly 3.8 million procedures are undertaken each year and some animals can be used for more than one procedure.

So, what is a procedure? At minimum, it's defined as the "skilled insertion of a hypodermic needle", - taking a blood sample or giving an injection to you or me. The Home Office also has similar definitions for psychological stress or changes in diet.

There are a number of reasons a researcher might want to undertake a procedure. They can range widely from breeding mice with a high chance of developing cancer, so the early stages of the disease can be studied using MRI scans or to trial treatments, to drugs testing, to developing animal vaccines. Since research can involve such a broad range of activities, the Home Office classifies each procedure by the probable level of suffering, or lack thereof, that the animal is likely to experience.

Procedures are thus classified in three degrees of potential severity - "mild", "moderate" and "substantial". Although the Home Office has previously stated that only 2% of procedures are "substantial", this is an average across projects and the figure is likely to be closer to 5%. The number of procedures that are unclassified is 3%, so the remaining 92% of procedures are mild or moderate.

Table 1 of the Home Office stats shows that almost half of "procedures" refer to the birth of a Genetically Modified (GM) or Harmfully Mutated (HM) animal (such as those likely to develop cancer), which are nearly all mice. Since the mapping of the human genome was completed in 2003, the focus of much research has been on finding out what these genes do, with the hope of preventing diseases such as cystic fibrosis or breast cancer. Hence, mice are born missing certain genes to study their function, and this is classified as a procedure.

Needless to say, GM animals do not necessarily suffer at all as a result of this branch of research. The designation of their birth as a procedure is due to the fact there is a chance they will suffer, rather than there being any evidence that they did. However, we can say with certainty that this work will ultimately prevent suffering in those animals and humans that would be born with various diseases in the future.

Overall, 93% of procedures carried out on animals in 2011 involved rodents or fish. This year's statistics show a 3% rise in actual (non-breeding) procedures, which is mainly due to an increase in research involving fish and domestic fowl. Almost all of the fowl were used for veterinary purposes, while fish are increasingly used for basic research into medical problems such as heart conditions.

The rise also masks work to reduce, replace and refine the use of animals in research, such as using fish foetuses or fruit flies in preference to mice. In many ways, the annual statistics are a measure not of animal suffering but the current level of investment in UK research.

The statistics also dispel one of the other great myths about animal research - that it is mainly undertaken by the pharmaceutical industry. In fact, only 26% of procedures are undertaken by commercial organisations of any kind, while the rest is undertaken by non-profit organisations, public bodies, public health labs, hospitals, charities, universities and medical schools. Far from being a secret, you can download this information from the Home Office website, from a page called "Research and testing using animals". As hiding places go, I've seen better.

This mix of researchers also largely explains why UAR's membership and funding list looks like it does.

That said, there is a long way to go to encourage complete openness. For instance, UAR works with researchers at universities around the UK to increase openness, but there are obvious pressures around the risk of misrepresentation of their research and potential risks to staff safety. Although attacks are now largely a thing of the past, we are less than 10 years from a particularly dark age of animal extremism, including car bombs, threats to families and the exhumation of one animal supplier's dead mother-in-law.

We must nevertheless continue to demonstrate to researchers that it is in their interests to be open about their work, because once the public see what really goes on and why, they are highly likely to understand its value to humans and animals alike.

So I agree that we should be talking about what's really involved in animal research. I agree that we should acknowledge that 95% of procedures are mild or moderate, and that nearly half of procedures are the breeding of a mouse. I believe that the debate should be measured and avoid superlatives. I believe that anti-research campaigners should be a lot more honest in their descriptions of animal research. Finally, I believe that we should continue down the long road to greater openness, the start of which is civilised debate, not extremism or misleading accounts of what goes on in the lab.