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Openness in Animal Research Must Mean More Than a Pre-Arranged Visit Around a Laboratory

We assume we live a free country; we can speak freely and know the truth. But I believe that being confronted by the truth can be a reminder of how elusive a commodity truth is and how often - quite deliberately - we're kept in the dark.

We assume we live a free country; we can speak freely and know the truth. But I believe that being confronted by the truth can be a reminder of how elusive a commodity truth is and how often - quite deliberately - we're kept in the dark.

This week, the BBC aired a report on its evening news featuring an 'exclusive' look at animal research in the Biomedical Sciences Department at Oxford University. The Medical Correspondent, Fergus Walsh, noted that he is the only journalist having ever been allowed access to the facility and to view the animals.

After five years of waiting to be given access to the animals (he originally visited the facility in 2008 to film the empty cages) what he was given, in reality, was a PR excursion around a laboratory which houses over 50,000 genetically modified mice and carries out invasive brain research on macaques. Simply giving a journalist a pre-organised and sanitised tour does not come close to the culture of 'openness and transparency' which the animal research industry purports to be working towards. We were told that the macaques are brain damaged with lesions yet why was this not shown?

While the UK government and research industry claims we have some of the world's highest welfare standards for animals in laboratories, the BUAV's investigation at London's Imperial College uncovered something different.

It showed how staff incompetence and neglect increased animal suffering (very high anyway); that animals did not always receive adequate anaesthesia and pain relief; it revealed breaches and lack of knowledge of UK Home Office project licences and the inhumane ways in which animals were killed. But we only know this because of a major undercover investigation by the BUAV which was carried out over seven months.

Current legislation prevents the Home Office, which licenses the use of animals in laboratory experiments, from making public what any laboratory is intending to do to animals and why

And although it took the BUAV investigation to undercover some of the truth about Imperial College, this law does not apply the same code of secrecy to public organisations, such as universities, which are obliged to directly provide information to interested parties about the experiments they conduct under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

This relative openness is under threat. The government is reviewing Section 24 of the Act which covers experiments on animals and a coalition of leading UK animal research institutions is lobbying to extend secrecy to include universities.

In 2012 this coalition, coordinated by lobby group Understanding Animal Research, gave written evidence to a parliamentary committee recommending that universities should have a veto over information about animal experiments under FOIA.

I fully support the need for scientific research, not least into currently incurable diseases, but not by deliberately inflicting suffering on animals in experiments, any more than I would with human beings. My objection to animal testing is primarily ethical, but there's also a large and growing body of evidence about the scientific unreliability of animal experiments.

As long as animals are used in experiments, I will continue to argue for greater openness about what goes on in laboratories. Don't forget a lack of transparency creates duplication in animal research, especially on an international scale. This is one way for the UK to achieve a reduction in experiments without hampering scientific advancement.

Other European countries such as Norway and Sweden have much greater transparency about the animal experiments they conduct.

I want the government to set up a system to publish anonymised data on all animal experiments to prevent duplication and allow an informed debate.

It could be that different databases may be necessary for different types of research. Pharmaceutical development, for example, may require greater protection of confidential data than academic research.

Perhaps ironically, an Ipsos MORI study commissioned by Understanding Animal Research on behalf of the Medical Research Council and the British Pharmacological Society found that participants wanted animal research to be subject to external scrutiny by people with an interest in animal welfare, rather than those who have a vested financial or scientific interest.

Participants wanted to know about experiments happening near them, and about how many animals are used, how they suffer and how they are killed.

The poll also indicated widespread support for CCTV in laboratories, shock at the extent of genetic modification of animals, and a public right to challenge the approval of experiments before they go ahead. They wanted more inspectors for the four million plus experiments on animals in the UK each year (amazingly, currently there are only 22)

I believe that the only way to have a mature, informed debate is for the details of what is done to animals and why to be published alongside the supposed benefits of each study. Secrecy renders us unable to see, judge and form opinions.

It's clear from Ipsos MORI's findings that a BUAV film showing the results of our undercover work at Imperial College London, Cambridge University and Wickham Laboratories had a profound effect on participants, who subsequently called for a wider understanding of the use of animals in experiments.

FOI gives us the right to ask any public sector organisation for all the recorded information they have on any subject. Let's make sure we keep it that way and work for greater transparency. If laboratories had glass walls, would it mean the end of animal experiments?

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