These are the questions we should be asking about animal research

Debate about research on animals fails to tackle all the issues, says Gail Davies

July 21, 2016
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The annual statistics relating to scientific procedures performed on living animals are published today. The data will be pored over by policymakers, industry associations, animal protection groups and members of the public to identify the increases or decreases, across procedures, and over species.

Press releases will follow. There will be variations in interpretation. For different groups, these figures offer clues to the state of international testing requirements, UK bioscience investments, changing practices in biological research, and the experiences of animals in laboratories.

This annual debate over numbers is important. It is a considerable credit to those who have promoted the transparency of animal research in the UK that we have access to high-quality data. Yet, too often, subsequent discussions fall into positive or negative reactions, of arguing for or against animal research. 

In the process, many important questions are missed.

These include discussions about the changing kinds of species used, and include how best to care for newcomers to the laboratory – such as zebrafish. There are missing elements about the changing geographies of research, such as the oversight and life experience of animals if research or breeding happens overseas. There are overlooked issues around how animal models and non-animal alternatives attain credibility amid a general crisis in scientific reproducibility.

The overall scale of animal research matters, but so do these complex questions of care, culture and credibility.

These are the kinds of questions that emerge if you put an interdisciplinary group of about 45 life scientists, social scientists, humanities scholars, non-governmental organisations and policymakers in a room to talk about how they can work together to improve laboratory animal research and welfare.  

Collaborative agenda-setting exercises are increasingly popular, but they are rarely this eclectic. We recruited individuals from across these animal research communities to contribute their personal questions and priorities, and then discuss and distil these at a workshop in London.

Our future plan for research in the humanities and social sciences on laboratory animal science and welfare is now out in the Plos One journal. We agree that science gives us evidence to improve practices for animal research and welfare. We also argue that experts in humanities and social science can help understand how and why techniques are taken up in different contexts, how to share learning and improve decision-making, and how to promote openness and better public engagement.

These issues matter to the public too. While media debate about animal research, as in other areas of science, tends to look for opposing views, public concerns often cluster in the middle, around how far animal suffering can be minimised and health benefits realised. 

We have set an agenda that we plan to develop and we hope that others will take forward too. We look forward to more research that goes beyond headline figures to understand the social, economic and cultural interactions that influence the patterns of animal research and public responses too.

These discussions are needed more than ever.

The annual statistics report forms of data now required across the European Union. The vote to leave the EU means future arrangements for animal research in the UK are more uncertain. And, as we now know, pro- or anti- arguments rarely provide an adequate road map for the future. 

Gail Davies is a professor in human geography at the University of Exeter.

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