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Nothing to hide: opening the files on animal research

While most people are aware that animals are used in biomedical research, few have any idea about the numbers of animals or the physiological and psychological “challenges” they endure. Ask yourself how…

Does Australia experiment on primates? It’s harder to find out than you might think. PETA/Wikimedia

While most people are aware that animals are used in biomedical research, few have any idea about the numbers of animals or the physiological and psychological “challenges” they endure.

Ask yourself how many research animals are used and killed in Australia every year? Which species are involved? Do Australian researchers use cats and dogs and non-human primates? What do the animals go through exactly?

Questions like these go to the heart of the ethical debate over using animals — a debate all of us have an interest in.

We all benefit from animal research. We take drugs and use chemical products that are tested on animals. We undergo new surgical procedures that have been practiced on animals.

As taxpayers, we finance a great deal of animal research through the auspices of NHMRC.

We care about animal welfare and have it in our power to influence how animal research is regulated.

Our public interest in animal research is beyond dispute. After all, researchers must keep records of the numbers of animals they use and must declare the level of pain and suffering the animals endure. This data is passed on to regulators who make it available to the public in annual reports such as NSW Animal Research Review Panel Annual Report.

The problem with the existing reporting system, however, is that animal use data is only seen by people who have already made up their minds on the issue: researchers and animal rights activists. Few people outside the animal research and animal advocacy communities have the time or inclination to download, let alone read, voluminous annual reports.

From a public policy point of view, widespread ignorance about animal research is not good. As John Stuart Mill pointed out, good public policy is the product of informed debate after exposure to challenging issues. Thus, if we want to strike the right balance between scientific progress and animal welfare, we need to expose animal use data to people who are not partisans of one side or the other.

How many mice went to make that medicine? Tatiana Bulyonkova

My suggestion is this: when they promote their research in the media, scientists could disclose details of their animal use. Journalists or public relations officers could then weave the information into their stories or press releases.

For example, in a report or press release about a diabetes study in which rats were fed a high fat diet, the journalist would say something like, “a total of 27 rats were used in the study” or “at the completion of the study 18 mice were euthanized” or “during the study the mice were subjected to minor physiological challenges”.

Another approach could be a general disclaimer-type statement at the beginning or end of the narrative in much the same way as the origin of political advertisements are disclosed during election campaigns.

Why would a researcher want to be more open about their use of animals?

Because researchers already accept they have obligations to animals and the public that govern their conduct within the laboratory. All I am doing is pointing out that the laboratory wall is an arbitrary boundary. A researcher’s animal ethics-related public-interest responsibilities extend to any public communication about their research.

If their research is conducted in accordance with the Australian Code of Practice for Care and Use of Animals in Scientific Purposes, then researchers have nothing to hide or be ashamed about. Indeed, their research is bound to have widespread public support and greater disclosure can only bolster its democratic legitimacy.

Why would journalists or public relations officers want to include animal use data in stories and press releases?

Because, believe it or not, ethical norms and codes of ethics in both journalism and public relations support the inclusion of animal use data in science reporting. To the extent that animal use data is included in a story or press release, it serves to produce more balanced and genuinely “dialogic” public interest-focused reporting.

Besides, it is not as if the insertion of data into a wider narrative will change the overall tenor of the story or compromise any news values. At most it will involve inserting a few figures and a sentence or two.

Will researchers be vulnerable to violent retaliation from animal rights activists?

Not likely. Extremists already know about animal use data and where to find it. The effect of wider dissemination will simply be to inform people who are not disposed to violence about a matter of serious public interest.

Will researchers be vulnerable to social admonition?

Perhaps, but apart from ASIO agents who must remain anonymous for reasons of national security, no other professionals can expect protection from the disapproval of friends and family. Greater public disclosure will bring animal research into line with other legal but contentious professions.

Finally, would the wider dissemination of animal use data lead to a downturn in research?

This too is unlikely, given the enormous political clout of the research lobby and widespread public support for properly regulated research. But in a democracy, if the public want to restrict a practice - like slavery or the production of CFCs - then that’s the way it goes.

News reports about animal research tend to be, as US communications researcher Sharon Batt puts it “embellished narratives of innovation, hope and scientific heroism.” The inclusion of animal use data in news stories would enable researchers and journalists alike to play a part creating a more open and publicly accountable animal research culture.

Join the conversation

9 Comments sorted by

  1. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    I am against research using animals!

    Then one day my beautiful daughter develops a rare, life threatening disease and the doctors say her only chance is a new drug that requires testing on a rat.

    One has to die - the rat or my blue eyed, blonde haired daughter. What will I do?

    Gerard Dean

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    1. Helen Marston

      CEO Humane Research Australia Inc.

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Gerard, your dilemma would be natural for any caring parent.

      As with most other species, humans have an intrinsic urge to protect their own offspring in an attempt to further enhance their species. So naturally, with this protective parental view, if it is believed that animal experiments would save the life of a child, then of course a parent would support that research - or pretty much any other activity to save their child.

      The bottom line is, however, tests conducted on a rat are not predictive of human outcomes and your daughter would have a far greater chance of being cured if the drugs were tested on a battery of human-specific methodologies – microfluidic chips and microdosing for example.

      It’s unfortunate that many people see the debate as being too simplistic – the dog or the child – but the reality is that experimenting on animals has serious detrimental consequences for both.

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    2. Rob Buttrose

      University of Melbourne

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      A false dilemma and the wrong question to ask. First, no one could blame you for "agreeing" that the the rat be sacrificed to test the drug that may save your daughter's life. No one could blame you if you were the doctor doing the testing. You could even argue that in such "them or me (or my own)" situations it is not wrong to prioritize the human's interest over the animal.

      On the other hand, if testing a new drug on an animal was the only chance of producing a cure, then you might consider…

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  2. Zvyozdochka

    logged in via Twitter

    Is that a cappuchin monkey in some kind of tube?

    For me that's a pretty disturbing photo actually, especially now that we know so much more about their consciousness.

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  3. CH Soames

    Cytogeneticist

    Compassion. 'Too much' of it apparently makes people 'extremists'. In the interest of balance it's worth keeping in mind that subjecting our fellow creatures to suffering unto death is a fairly extreme thing to do.
    Objectivity. Too much of it can tempt us to disguise extremity under a veneer of laboratorial detachment.
    Physiological challenges should be rated for severity per degree of damage/lethality.
    Not disputing here the clear benefits to humans of [other] animal experimentation. However our rhetoric is one-sided in its bias towards underplaying the horror of some of the things we do to [other] animals and overplaying the 'extremeness' of those who empathise with the victims of our research.

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  4. Rob Buttrose

    University of Melbourne

    I question the author's claim that animal use data is in general publicly available.

    Certainly in Victoria, the Bureau of Animal Welfare (part of DPI) Animal Use Reports, which give the level of detail one needs to determine the number of animals used and what actually is done to them in research institutions, are not public. Animal advocacy groups (Lawyers for Animals, Animals Australia, Humane Research Australia, Voiceless) regularly complain that this is an issue and go to great lengths…

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    1. Rob Buttrose

      University of Melbourne

      In reply to Rob Buttrose

      I correct myself.
      Animal use statistics for Victoria are available here:
      http://www.dpi.vic.gov.au/agriculture/innovation-and-research/animals-used-research-and-teaching/community-engagement

      These are annual statistics and summarise Animal Use Returns from institutions. The returns themselves are not available as far as I know. It is not clear either whether the returns contain more detail than the summaries. Of course, there would be thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of them each year.

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  5. Lynette Shanley

    President

    Finding out what is going on in Australia is not easy as implied. Our organisation has collected the figures for many years now and there are many complications in knowing exactly what is happening.
    In one instance one state told us they were told by the NHMRC they no longer had to keep the stats. The NHMRC denied this but did say it is not mandatory to keep stats. If any state does not want to keep stats it does not have to. Any state could stop recording numbers at any stage.
    We have also found…

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  6. Alison Moore

    Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, University of Western Sydney

    This is actually a very sound article about regulation and transparency in animal research. I would encourage both the catastrophising-vision proponents of animal research (ie.its either my child or the bunny!) AND the categorical opponents of all animal research to consider some of these more subtle questions.

    John is a massive credit UWS. We are very lucky to him and so is the Conversation.

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