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How and why do we use animals in research?

There are few topics as emotive as the use of animals in research, and few topics where public trust is so essential. This is your chance to have your say.

A labatory technician holds a lab mouse. Photo: Getty

At a meeting recently, one of our clinical scientists described how she had given a talk to prospective medical students about her research. They expressed surprise that medical research involved the use of animals. How, she wondered, did they think new drugs were developed?

There is a lot of misunderstanding and, for want of a better word, ignorance, about how and why animals are used in research. At a series of recent focus groups, for example, participants believed that cosmetics were still tested on animals. In fact, this practice has not been allowed in the UK since 1998 and was outlawed across Europe in 2009, and from this year no cosmetics tested on animals can be sold in the EU, regardless of where the testing took place. 

It is misconceptions such as these that drive home the need for scientists to talk about their work and which partly underlie the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research being developed by Understanding Animal Research (UAR).

Animals are essential for improving our understanding of health and disease, from how mental illness arises from the circuitry in the brain, to improving surgical procedures and developing new medicines to keep us – and our pets and livestock – healthy. We are constantly refining our techniques: in many cases, we are able to replace animal use with new technologies. Of course researchers would like to see the day when animals are no longer required for medical research.  Unfortunately we are not there yet.

As a nation of animal lovers, it is understandable that many of us feel uncomfortable with the idea that we deliberately make our animals sick in the name of medical research. This is why we believe that scientists must be open about their work and what it entails so that the public can scrutinise it and hold them to account.

The UK has some of the strictest legislation in the world when it comes to research using animals. Every researcher who wishes to use animals must apply to the Home Office for a licence and must show why animals are required and that the eventual benefits of the research outweigh the harm to the animals involved. In addition, the Wellcome Trust, like all other major funders of research, insists that researchers demonstrate a commitment to the "3Rs" – the reduction, refinement and replacement of the use of animals in research.

We thought the research community was doing a reasonable job of communicating what they do and how they do it, but towards the end of last year we received a wake-up call. A survey carried out by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the government showed that the number of people who ‘could accept the use of animals in research’ had fallen – not by a huge amount, but a decline in support nevertheless.

Ironically, one reason for this decline may be the safer environment in which scientists now conduct their research. A decade ago, animal rights activists waged a campaign of intimidation towards animal researchers, with threats of physical violence, attacks on labs and even bombs. A small, but courageous, cohort of scientists stood up to them publicly, explaining their work and why it was important. Now, thanks to measures aimed at tackling extremism, such attacks are a thing of the past, but this has meant that scientists are no longer called on as often to explain why using animals is necessary for scientific and medical progress.

When the results of the survey were released, a group of funders, charities, learned societies, universities and pharmaceutical companies united to sign a "declaration of openness", committing to becoming more open about the use of animals. This declaration was only intended to be the start of the process, however; we also committed to developing a ‘concordat’ that would detail the measures that we would take to be more open.

Over the past year, UAR has been leading discussions to pull together this concordat. They have sought input from organisations that carry out or fund research using animals, and organisations that are concerned with animal welfare.

The final version of the concordat is due to be launched in spring next year, but today UAR is launching a public consultation to find out what people think about the proposals and what "openness" around the use of animals in research means to them.

Much is made in the scientific world about "public dialogue" and "public engagement" – the need not to talk at the public, but rather to talk and, crucially, listen, to them. There are few topics as emotive as the use of animals in research, and few topics where public trust is so essential. It would be very easy for the research community to assume it knows what people want to know. This is your chance to tell us what you really want to know.

To take part in the public consultation, please visit www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk.

Nancy Lee is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Wellcome Trust