In October 2012, over 40 organisations involved with bioscience in the UK signed a Declaration on Openness on Animal Research, committing them to setting out how they would be more open about the ways in which animals are used in scientific, medical and veterinary research in the UK.
As a first step, 3 working groups of ordinary members of the public were convened for what is known an deliberative research - where participants learn about and discuss a topic in-depth. The idea was to learn what sort of information most people would need to complete their understanding of what goes on in the lab, and what changes those who conduct or commission animal research will have to make to the same end.
Members were shown a wide range of materials, including anti-vivisection materials to ensure the process was balanced. This led to some proposed commitments on the part of those who conduct or commission animal research, and it is now time to ask the wider public what they think of them.
This process has never been about whether individuals support animal research or not. Rather, it is about understanding what tools people need to learn enough about the topic to come to an informed conclusion. Certainly in my experience, many people have based their views on an incomplete understanding of what goes on in the lab.
Many, for instance, are surprised to learn that half of experiments are the breeding of genetically manipulated mice, or that the dogs, cats and monkeys adorning protesters' posters make up less than 1% of experiments. More cats are run over every day in the UK than are used in research in an entire year and, when they are used, it's usually for veterinary studies.
Others believe that there are "modern alternatives" to animal research, which is wide of the mark given that it's against the law to use an animal if there's an alternative. I sometimes get the feeling they think that we have whizzy computers where we can zoom around inside a model of a body when the most we can model in a computer is a single cell.
It is not surprising that the public have this impression, when this is what they are told by seemingly reputable sources. For instance, research prohibitionist Dr Victoria Martindale falsely claimed on the BBC the week before last that we no longer need animals because we have "MRI scanners". This rather misses the point that scientists already use MRI scanners:- they put animals, usually mice, into them to study things such as tumour growth in a way we wouldn't do with humans because we wouldn't just let the tumour grow. If she were right, of course, it would be illegal for scientists to use animals.
However, as much as it is hoped Openness will set the record straight, what it won't do is provide a moral context for experiments. I have seen the consideration of this issue cast in terms of a runaway train heading towards a junction in the tracks. Down one route there are 10 people on the track, and down the other there are 50. If you were able to reroute the train, would you sacrifice the 10 to save the 50?
Where this is more complicated with animal research is that, very often, people are only aware of one of the groups. They might focus relentlessly on the welfare of humans and pay little heed to the animal sacrifices which led to the medicines they reply upon, or focus entirely on the research animals, unaware that their sacrifice saved many more animal and/or human lives.
Perhaps a good example is insulin. What fraction of the world's 51 million type-1 diabetic humans, or indeed the owners of UK's 40,000 diabetic dogs, know that they owe their lives to just 12 dogs? Would the people protesting against the use of those 12 dogs at the time really be happy to let 51 million people, or 40,000 dogs, die a slow and painful death instead?
There are more recent examples, such as GM mice studies that have led to a treatment for the child-killing disease Progeria. And who, in the future, receiving stem cell therapy will know that it was all kicked off when John Gurdon cloned a frog in the early 1960s?
In our train analogy it is impossible to make a meaningful moral call without understanding the costs and the benefits. It's further complicated by the nuances ignored by the train analogy such as the cognitive differences between mice and men, the use of animals for veterinary breakthroughs and the fact that humans have civil rights that direct one to protect them, and I'm sure people will differ in their conclusions. I personally feel that putting principle above human and animal lives is a poor use of principle. My principles are to minimise overall suffering rather than fixating on a technique.
However, the Openness process isn't about me. It's 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.