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28/11/2014

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Animal experimentation

Wendy Jarrett and Helen Sang want more openness.

Transparency and animal experimentation

Wendy Jarrett, Chief Executive of Understanding Animal Research, urges researchers to speak out about their work.

According to a poll conducted in 2012 by Ipsos MORI for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, 85 per cent of the UK public express broad support for animal experimentation as part of medical research.

Wendy Jarrett, Chief Executive of Understanding Animal Research, urges researchers to speak out about their work.

According to a poll conducted in 2012 by Ipsos MORI for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, 85 per cent of the UK public express broad support for animal experimentation as part of medical research.

Many issues would love to be able to claim such high levels of public support, so why has this poll caused disappointment among researchers, research funders and government departments?

The poll shows that broad support for animal research has fallen from its 2010 level of 90 per cent, a drop of five percentage points.  Another striking finding is that the proportion of people who believe that the laws and regulations controlling animal research are stringent and effective, has fallen.  TheUKarguably has the toughest laws on animal research in the world, yet 64 per cent of those questioned agreed with the statement: ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if some animal experiments go on behind closed doors without an official licence.’ Furthermore, only 54 per cent say that they trust inspectors to bring any misconduct to light.

The shift in public attitude is not huge, but it is a wake-up call for the scientific community. It demonstrates that public support for animal research cannot be taken for granted.  But what are the reasons behind this fall in support, and what can be done to reverse it?

Make the case

One answer may come from another finding from the poll: that 40 per cent of people do not feel sufficiently informed about animal research, and need to know more before making up their mind. Since trust relies on understanding, we cannot expect people to trust in something they do not feel they know enough about.  If people feel that they do not know what happens in laboratories, then they are unlikely to trust the regulations that govern how research is conducted. Without the information to decide whether the research was ethical, some will follow a gut feeling that animal research must be cruel, even if they recognise its benefits.

In the 2000s, when animal rights extremists were attacking researchers, the life-science sector came out in response to the attacks and explained that the medical revolutions of the last century, such as antibiotics and transplants, would not have been possible without animal research. Researchers also took the time to describe how research is carried out, how high our welfare standards are in this country and how much effort goes in to the 3Rs: the reduction, refinement and replacement of animals in research. It was during this period that support for animal research was at its highest.

Animal rights extremism has now, thankfully, fallen away.  But so too has the number of researchers speaking out about their work.

The poll results show that supporters of animal research must continue to make the case for their work. They must do more to explain why and how animals are used in medical research.

New declaration   

And this is exactly what is now happening.  In response to the poll, the life-science sector, including academia, industry, charities, funders and government, has come together to look at how it can be more open about animal research. Around 50 universities, companies, funders and charities have signed a declaration to work together to make animal research more transparent.  Understanding Medical Research is now leading work to develop a Concordat on Openness about animal research.

The hope is that a new era of openness will see better access to labs for journalists, more proactive communications about when, why and how research has used animals, and a better public understanding of why such research is vital. We can then all – scientists and public alike – be justly proud of theUK’s medical and veterinary breakthroughs.

It’s good to talk

Professor Helen Sang of the Roslin Institute is adamant that we should be open about animal experiments

I lead a research group at The Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh. The Institute is an animal science research institute, supporting research related to the improvement and health of farm animals and basic bioscience underpinning health.

Professor Helen Sang of the Roslin Institute is adamant that we should be open about animal experiments

I lead a research group at The Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh. The Institute is an animal science research institute, supporting research related to the improvement and health of farm animals and basic bioscience underpinning health.

My research focuses on the development and application of genetic modification (GM) technologies in the chicken. We aim to develop efficient GM technologies for use in both basic and applied research.

An ongoing applied project, in collaboration with Dr. Laurence Tiley at Cambridge University, is genetic modification of chickens to provide resistance to bird flu.

Public sensitivities

My research involves both animal experiments and genetic modification, so is potentially controversial. I have had to think a lot about if, when and how I discuss it in public. The animal experiments with which we are involved mainly do not involve procedures of high severity but, for example, the flu-resistance of our GM chickens is tested by infecting the birds with H5N1 bird flu virus. And people who eat the chickens have to accept the fact that they’ve been genetically modified.  Our research would be pointless if the public were to reject commercially-produced chicken because of worries about GM.

Being open

Laurence and I chose to be open about the research from the outset, to avoid the potential accusation of being ‘boffins behind closed doors’ altering food in mysterious and possibly harmful ways. I was encouraged by the experience of the Roslin Institute team behind ‘Dolly’ the cloned sheep, who were very well-prepared and open about their research and always, when possible, agreed to interviews and presented talks if asked.

We published our first steps to GM flu-resistant chickens in early 2011 and worked with the Science Media Centre (SMC) holding a briefing event for science journalists. The SMC is very helpful and has appropriate contacts. The event consisted of a short talk, Q&A session and provided an information document; subsequent articles in the press were positive and accurate. The story spread across the web and the first reports were used by many others with basic accuracy maintained (no ‘frankenfoods’ headlines!).

Public discussion

Members of my research group have also been involved in discussing our research with the general public, through our annual open day. Two years ago we moved to a fantastic new research building and decided that The Roslin Institute (which receives major funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) should open to the public. My group put on displays involving posters, eggs and chick embryos that can be viewed live down a microscope, providing a great way to discuss our research with visitors.

I have found that many people do not understand the basics of genetic modification and are much less worried when they can find out more from hands-on scientists. Animal experiments make more sense if people can understand why they are being carried out, and that the people who are doing the experiments take proper care of the animals. When I give talks I find that over half of the audience may be prepared to consider the use of GM for flu resistance in chickens, but of course there are people who do not want to eat GM food and debate the issues with me.

I get more comfortable with talking about my research the more experience I get. The positive feedback for making this effort is rewarding. I think it is very important that the scientists involved in animal research get out and about and discuss their research. The most important aspect of our open days for many people is getting to talk to scientists.

Wendy Jarrett
Wendy Jarrett is Chief Executive of Understanding Animal Research
Professor Helen Sang
Professor Helen Sang is at the Roslin Institute
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