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.

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

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The investigation into Australia’s “Abu Ghraib” could neglect wider abuses in the Northern Territory

Footage from a youth detention centre in the Northern Territory capital, Darwin, may not be enough for authorities to finally address endemic discrimination in the region.

It isn’t Abu Ghraib, but you could be forgiven for making the mistake when you first see the picture of the hooded 17-year-old.

In shocking footage made available to the public for the first time on Monday night, guards at a juvenile detention centre in Darwin are seen apparently systematically abusing the teenager Dylan Voller in a horrific timelapse.

The Australian investigative series Four Corners aired CCTV footage showing guards body-slamming him to the ground, punching him in the head, violently stripping him naked, and pinning him to the ground in a hog-tie position.

It continues, piling atrocity on atrocity from when he was a 13-year-old detainee in 2010, until he is shown shackled to the chair in the already infamous photo from footage this year. It is understood that Voller has long been the object of special animosity from the guards.

Voller was not the only child suffering in the Don Dale facility over the years; tapes also showed six boys being tear-gassed in August of 2014. They had reportedly been kept in tiny isolation cells for 23 hours a day, some of them for weeks, though laws limited such confinement to 72 hours.

At the time, the press was told that there had been a riot at the prison in its maximum security cells but the newly-released footage shows a markedly different set of events. Guards had left one of the boy’s doors unlocked, and he slipped out of his cell and broke a window. Just as he appeared to be surrendering, guards took the decision to gas all six boys in the wing, five of whom were in their cells.

This situation would be shocking enough, but attitude shown by the guards – who laughed when the would-be escapee soiled himself, calling him unprintable names – has sent the whole country into an uproar.

Australia has a complicated justice system; it is technically governed by the Crown and it’s made up of both states and Territories. Policies shift wildly between them, and the Northern Territories are governed by what Australians call The Intervention, a series of paternalistic policies meant to cut back on crime and violence in Indigenous communities.

In 2007, then Prime Minister John Howard announced that pornography and alcohol would be banned for Aboriginal peoples in the Northern Territories, and welfare spending restricted by item.

Though only 3 per cent of the general population, Indigenous people make up 28 per cent of Australia’s incarcerated adult population, and 54 per cent of jailed youth nationwide. In the Northern Territories that youth number nearly doubles to 97 per cent

John Elferidge, who until yesterday was the NT Minister for Corrections, said that the trouble was due to a “lack of training”.  Adam Giles, the NT’s Chief Minister, has sacked Elferidge and personally taken over the portfolio, saying he was kept in the dark about these events Giles has pledged to appoint a permanent Inspector General for the Territory.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has called for a Royal Commission into the allegations of abuse and torture by prison workers, to be completed by early next year.

This is in itself controversial, because Turnbull has taken the decision to limit the Commission’s scope to the Don Dale facility alone – in the interest of speed and efficiency, he says – instead of investigating the whole of the Territory. Given that some of these guards have since transferred to other facilities, many people are concerned that this narrow investigation will fail to remedy the horrific problems.

Dylan Voller remains in isolation in an adult prison. Peter O’Brien, solicitor for both Voller and another of the boys, has called for his immediate release, saying that three of the guards from Don Dale are still in charge of his welfare.

It is unclear how much of this abuse is actionable. In most of Australia the statute of limitations to allege abuse by staff is three-six years. In the Northern Territories, it is a mere 28 days.

Linda Tirado is an author and activist who works in America, Australia, and the UK.