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

A labatory technician holds a lab mouse. Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty
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This is no time for civility towards Republicans – even John McCain

Appeals for compassion towards the cancer-stricken senator downplay the damage he and his party are doing on healthcare.

If it passes, the Republican health care bill currently being debated in the Senate will kill people. Over the past few months, the party has made several attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act passed under Obama, all of which share one key feature: they leave millions more people without healthcare.

Data indicates that every year, one in every 830 Americans who lack healthcare insurance will die unnecessarily. A report by the Congressional Budget Office suggests that the newest “skinny repeal” plan will leave an extra 16 million individuals uninsured. That’s an estimated annual body count of 19,277. Many more will be forced to live with treatable painful, chronic and debilitating conditions. Some will develop preventable but permanent disabilities and disfigurements - losing their sight, hearing or use of limbs.

This is upsetting to think about as an observer - thousands of miles across the Atlantic, in a country that has had universal, free at the point of delivery healthcare for almost seven decades. It is monstrously, unfathomably traumatic if you’re one of the millions of Americans who stand to be affected. If you’ve got loved ones who stand to be affected. If you’ve got an ongoing health condition and have no idea how you’ll afford treatment if this bill passes.

I’ve got friends who’re in this situation. They’re petrified, furious and increasingly exhausted. This process has been going on for months. Repeatedly, people have been forced to phone their elected representatives and beg for their lives. There is absolutely no ambiguity about consequences of the legislation. Every senator who supports the health care bill does so in the knowledge it will cost tens of thousands of lives - and having taken calls from its terrified potential victims.

They consider this justifiable because it will enable them to cut taxes for the rich. This might sound like an over simplistic or hyperbolic assertion, but it’s factually true. Past versions of the bill have included tax cuts for healthcare corporations and for individuals with incomes over $200,000 per year, or married couples making over $250,000. The current “skinny repeal” plan has dropped some of these changes, but does remove the employer mandate - which requires medium and large businesses to provide affordable health insurance for 95 per cent full-time employees.

On Tuesday, Senator John McCain took time out from state-funded brain cancer treatment to vote to aid a bill that will deny that same medical care to millions of poorer citizens. In response, ordinary US citizens cursed and insulted him and in some cases wished him dead. This backlash provoked a backlash of its own, with commentators in both the UK and US bemoaning the lack of civility in contemporary discourse. The conflict revealed a fundamental divide in the way we understand politics, cause and effect, and moral culpability.

Over 170 years ago, Engels coined the term “social murder” to describe the process by which societies place poor people in conditions which ensure “they inevitably meet a too early… death”. Morally, it’s hard to see what distinguishes voting to pass a healthcare bill you know will kill tens of thousands from shooting someone and stealing their wallet. The only difference seems to be scale and the number of steps involved. It’s not necessary to wield the weapon yourself to have blood on your hands.

In normal murder cases, few people would even begin to argue that killers deserve to be treated with respect. Most us would avoid lecturing victims’ on politeness and calm, rational debate, and would recognise any anger and hate they feel towards the perpetrator as legitimate emotion. We’d accept the existence of moral rights and wrongs. Even if we feel that two wrongs don’t make a right, we’d understand that when one wrong is vastly more abhorrent and consequential than the other, it should be the focus of our condemnation. Certainly, we wouldn’t pompously insist that a person who willingly took another’s life is “wrong, not evil”.

Knowing the sheer, frantic terror many of my friends in the US are currently experiencing, I’ve found it sickening to watch them be scolded about politeness by individuals with no skin in the game. If it’s not you our your family at risk, it’s far easier to remain cool and detached. Approaching policy debates as an intellectual exercise isn’t evidence of moral superiority - it’s a function of privilege.

Increasingly, I’m coming round to the idea that incivility isn’t merely justifiable, but actively necessary. Senators voted 51-50 in favour of debating a bill that will strip healthcare from millions of people. It’s unpleasant to wish that John McCain was dead—but is it illegitimate to note that, had he been unable to vote, legislation that will kill tens of thousands of others might have been blocked? Crude, visceral language can be a way to force people to acknowledge that this isn’t simply an abstract debate—it’s a matter of life and death.

As Democratic congressman Keith Ellison has argued, merely resisting efforts to cut healthcare isn’t enough. Millions of Americans already lack health insurance and tens of thousands die every year as a result. The Affordable Care Act was a step in the right direction, but the coalition of resistance that has been built to defend it must also push further, for universal coverage. Righteous anger is necessary fuel for that fight.