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Robert Winston at the British Science Festival

Robert Winston at the British Science Festival

by Kate Prescott

Kate has been awarded a bursary by her college to attend the British Science Festival 2013. She is about to begin a degree in Natural Sciences at Cambridge, and has recently launched her own blog about STEM opportunities, such as summer schools and taster days for students of all ages – www.passionateaboutscience.co.uk – to share her love of the subject and give information on upcoming events to support students from all backgrounds in their quest to become scientists! You can follow her on Twitter (@Passion_Science) or find her on Facebook (Passionate About Science).

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A discussion on a Bill in the House of Lords sounds more suitable for a politics festival than a science one, nonetheless the lecture theatre was packed with people hoping to hear Lord Robert Winston's talk at the British Science Festival. Adam Rutherford interviewed the famous science researcher and communicator about his recent Bill, followed by a popular Q+A session.

Robert Winston aims to reduce public opposition to animal research for pharmaceuticals by making it obligatory by law for medicines which have used animal research to clearly state it on their packaging. In reality, this is the vast majority of such products due to the stringent tests required by the licensing process to prevent disasters such as the Northwick Park and thalidomide babies disasters occurring more frequently. Despite this, a significant proportion of the population are opposed to such testing, which Robert Winston claims is due to a lack of proper education and public awareness rather than reasoned, informed argument.

Although the first section of the talk discussed some of the aims of and issues with the Bill, the really exciting part was the audience discussion time. A wide range of potential problems were brought up – for example the possibility that some people would refuse to take their medication due to being against such animal testing. Another interesting point was that the British pharmaceutical industry could suffer not only due to less UK people buying medicines but also from opposition to animal testing abroad, which could have a knock on effect on funding for future research. Robert Winston acknowledged that more social research would improve our awareness of these possibilities and could potentially lead to small amendments to the Bill to reduce such negative impacts. He also explained that the amount of legislation and restrictions on animal testing in the UK is far greater than in other countries, leading to the subjects of such research generally living in much more comfortable and healthy conditions than the animals we eat. Reducing UK opposition to animal research could lead to a greater proportion of such research taking place in such an environment in the UK rather than in less concerned countries – thus improving the welfare of the animals used in research overall.

Another possibility that was mentioned was how recent scientific discoveries such as the importance of epigenetics in medicine could lead to new drugs requiring even more testing to investigate these factors, even though the government is encouraging a reduction in UK animal testing overall with the 'three Rs' (reduction, refinement and replacement).

Overall, the talk was not only incredibly informative but very interesting – although I am not an expert on anything political it seems to me that this Bill should prompt discussion on raising public awareness and understanding of animal testing. It was fantastic to hear about it first-hand from Robert Winston himself and being able to have such an in-depth debate on the Bill.

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