Animal rights movement slows search for alternatives despite new cash for 3Rs research. Zoe Corbyn reports
It is a cruel irony. The animal-rights movement has made scientists so defensive that that they have been deterred from researching alternatives to animal testing, it was claimed this week.
Speaking to The Times Higher , Vicky Robinson, the chief executive of the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), said the climate that animal rights activists had created had turned researchers off and contributed to a perception that 3Rs research was "soft science".
"People are rightly very defensive about their animal research... it undermines the stimulus to find alternatives," she said. "It is completely unacceptable that scientists are being put in that position."
Gill Langley, science director of the Dr Hadwen Trust, a charity that funds research into alternatives to animal testing, agreed, but added that the "top scientific community" had to take some of the blame for a "a lack of leadership" in promoting non-animal testing.
"Research has been stigmatised because it has been associated with the animal rights movement... It is easy for them to just dismiss it," she said.
Dr Robinson added that the fact that 3Rs research had traditionally been funded by organisations that were opposed to vivisection was problematic because the research was seen to have an agenda.
Other factors contributing to the perception that it was not good research included the fact that a lot of the work had been published in poor-quality journals in the past, as well as the low level of overall funding, she said.
The situation, however, appears to be changing slowly. Dame Nancy Rothwell, head of research at Manchester University and member of the NC3Rs board, said the past five years had seen the field begin to shake off its image and become more mainstream. "It is not there yet but it is self-fulfilling - for example if the money is there but the grants are hard to get."
Their comments come in the wake of an announcement last week by the Government that the NC3Rs is to receive an extra £1 million in funding for its research programme this year. The centre's annual research budget, boosted to £2.4 million, is to be spent on 11 research projects, each three years long.
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust provided the cash injection when the centre found itself inundated with high-quality applications.
Dr Robinson said she was "thrilled" to have the extra money but it was still a "drop in the ocean".
"If the Government is saying the 3Rs are important, then I think we have to see a serious increase in our budget," she said.
"Against a backdrop of it's not being seen as 'relevant' or 'good' science, we have got to demonstrate that it is. We want to get big researchers in big universities doing this type of research. We want to break that cycle."
Dr Langley also welcomed the boost and said it was pleasing to see that many of the projects this year were geared to finding replacements for animal models rather than being related to "reduction" or "refinement".
However, Dr Langley too said it was only a "starting point". "Within government departments there is not really a cohesive policy to support 3Rs research... We need to see leadership, joined-up thinking and consistency in support for replacement," she said.
Launching the projects, the Science Minister Malcolm Wicks said the UK arguably had the strictest regulations in the world on using animals in experiments. Dr Robinson said the problem, however, was that within the legislation there was nothing to encourage researchers to seek out new alternatives.
THE NC3Rs FUNDING PACKAGE
A total of 11 research projects are to benefit from the £2.4 million funding package from the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research. Six are geared towards replacement, four towards refinement and one looks at reduction.
Jamie Davies, from Edinburgh University, will work on finding replacements for mice in kidney research after he won a grant of £364,000.
Another grant, worth £59,000, has been given to Matt Guille, from Portsmouth University, to pioneer a new digital imaging method of identifying frogs. The system would be a refinement over the current techniques and reduce the animals' suffering.