The pledge was made by universities and science minister David Willetts at the launch of the government’s delivery plan on replacing, refining and reducing the use of animals in research – known as the 3Rs.
A pledge to reduce animal research was included in the Coalition agreement and Liberal Democrat crime prevention minister Norman Baker, who is leading the Home Office’s response to the issue, said the delivery plan was a “world first”.
Although it brought together many initiatives that had already been introduced since 2010, its publication sent out a message that “the government is committed to this, and we are working in harmony with the scientific community to achieve it and we are actually getting there”.
Figures in the document reveal that the number of animal procedures carried out in the UK has actually crept up in recent years. However, Mr Baker said a commitment to reduce overall numbers would only make sense in a global context because the UK was attracting some scientists who wanted to carry out animal research precisely because its welfare standards were so high.
Mr Willetts added that the precise number of experiments carried out would depend on “patterns of scientific advance”, while efforts to cut back on numbers could force researchers to carry out studies abroad, where welfare standards were lower.
He said one of the main new initiatives in the delivery plan was an effort to improve animal welfare standards internationally. One example was the use of animals in cosmetic testing, which has been banned n the UK for 15 years. He said the UK government was, for example, organising a seminar in Beijing to try to persuade China’s authorities to develop animal welfare standards and to cease using animals in cosmetic testing “wherever it is not scientifically necessary”.
As well as representing an ethical advance, such a move would open up the vast Chinese market to UK firms such as the Body Shop whose products are currently banned in China because they are not tested on animals, Mr Willetts said.
He said the other new angle of the delivery plan was the emphasis on transparency, which would be reflected in concordat on openness, due to be finalised in the spring.
Dominic Wells, professor in translational medicine at the Royal Veterinary College and a member of the concordat’s steering group, said he hoped one of the outcomes of the delivery plan would be more funding for the National Centre for the 3Rs, which currently receives around £5.5 million a year from the research councils.
“There no point doing experiments with animals that are sub-optimal in welfare because you get unreliable results… That is well understood by UK scientists,” he said.