Open labs may lead to open minds

A concordat aimed at ending secrecy in animal testing will allow for debate that should benefit researchers and subjects

May 1, 2014

Animal research: two of the most emotive words in science, and for much of the past 20 years, an area that few would admit being involved with, however strong their academic vocation.

But things are changing. Not the strength of feeling, perhaps, and certainly not the imperative that alternatives are used wherever possible and animal welfare prioritised. But more researchers are now willing to put their heads above the parapet and talk about their work.

In this week’s cover feature, we track this shift to a level of collective responsibility long absent, how it has come about, and what scientists are doing both to try to build support for their work and to ensure that this most sensitive mode of research is used appropriately.

There are two possible approaches to this issue: transparency or secrecy.

The secrecy surrounding animal experimentation was unhealthy for those involved, for research and, it seems, for the animals themselves

Scientists have tried the latter, and it proved disastrous. The few who were willing to advocate for their work became targets for campaigns of terror: Colin Blakemore’s experience, replete with death threats and an attack by masked assailants, ensured others were cowed into silence. What’s more, in the absence of any broad-based, authoritative case from the scientific community, others involved peripherally, such as transportation companies, began to withdraw their services.

There’s little evidence that the vacuum on the “for” side of the argument significantly affected public opinion – survey data suggest that between 2002 and 2010 the proportion of people who agreed with the statement: “I can accept animal experimentation as long as there is no unnecessary suffering to the animals” hovered around 75 per cent, although this dropped to 65 per cent in 2012.

But it’s clear that the secrecy surrounding animal experimentation was unhealthy for those involved, for research and, it seems likely, for the animals themselves, whose welfare (and measures to reduce their use) cannot have been aided by a lack of informed debate.

The second option is transparency, and our feature sets out efforts being made to open up labs to scrutiny, to debunk myths and misconceptions, and the role played by the Science Media Centre, Understanding Animal Research and others in challenging the status quo.

As well as cooling the white heat that has scorched the handful of researchers willing to talk about animal experimentation, greater transparency should also put appropriate pressure on labs themselves, and undercover filming by anti-vivisection campaigners apparently at Imperial College London should have been a wake-up call for institutions.

Despite the regime of Home Office inspections, and internal procedures, the film showed what seemed to be a casual approach quite out of step with the work at hand – not wilful abuse but an apparent lack of experience and oversight that, at face value, was shocking.

The next step in the transparency process is a Concordat on Openness on Animal Research, committing signatories to a more accountable approach. The draft concordat pledges that those who sign up will “explain our involvement with the use of animals in research” and “respond to reasonable enquiries”.

It sounds like a small step, but in the context of the past couple of decades, it could prove to be a giant leap towards the informed, rational debate we need on an issue of vital importance.

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