The University of Cambridge has been ordered by the Information Commissioner to release information on sheep research requested under the Freedom of Information Act.
Last year, the animal rights charity Cruelty Free International, previously known as the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, asked to see Cambridge’s Home Office project licences relating to several projects using sheep.
But Cambridge refused, arguing that releasing information about the possible adverse effects of the procedures on the animals “would be likely to increase protest and activism”, which could in turn threaten staff and students. It drew attention to past instances of animal rights protests in Cambridge, as well as to recent “scientific papers” which had elicited online comments “to the effect that researchers should themselves be harmed if they caused harm to animals”, and recent posters in Cambridge “offering cash to name those working in animal research”.
However, the commissioner agreed with the charity that the concerns were undermined by the fact that the researchers had themselves “been advertising the research in publications and on the internet in relation to one of the licences”, and by the university’s publication on its website of contact information for the researchers, plus “links to their animal research studies”. The commissioner also pointed out that extremist activity had declined sharply in recent years and was persuaded by evidence from the charity Understanding Animal Research that research organisations that are transparent about their use of animals are less likely to be singled out by protesters.
For similar reasons, the commissioner dismissed the university’s claim that its commercial interests would be damaged by increased protests, such as by contractors withdrawing from contracts to build new animal facilities.
Welcoming the ruling, Michelle Thew, chief executive of Cruelty Free International, said: “It is essential for informed public debate – about the ethics and the science – that as much information about what exactly happens to animals and why is available…Some of the research on sheep at Cambridge – [such as] starving them of oxygen – raises very serious welfare concerns.”
A spokesman for Cambridge said that the university would comply with the commissioner’s ruling.