Lorenza Giannella, Training Manager, Biochemical Society
The Concordat of Openness on Animal Research was celebrated on Monday 5th December, with the Annual Openness Awards and the 80th Stephen Paget Memorial Lecture. The Concordat was launched in UK in 2014 and quickly reached 109 signatories including Higher Education institutions, industry and other organizations, such as the Biochemical Society. Being a signatory of the Concordat involves a commitment to being more open about the use of animals in research, by clarifying details of their research and enhancing communications with the media and the public. The Biochemical Society is a proud signatory of the Concordat and is committed to communicating to our members and more widely about the use of animals in research. You can find another recent blog post on this topic here.
I had the opportunity to attend the 80th Stephen Paget memorial lecture by Professor Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, on “Animal Research: then and now”. I found this lecture fascinating and a great start point to further reflect on the complex matter of animal research and how its viewed by the public. Professor Sir Walport talked about the history of animal research debates and laws, which started almost two centuries ago with renowned scientists such as Thomas Henry Huxley and Charles Darwin. Charles Darwin was known to have a deep affection for animals. He was very active in preserving their welfare by drafting appeals and even a parliamentary bill, but he justified humane animal experiments for scientific advancements:
“I quite agree that it is justifiable for real investigations on physiology; but not for mere damnable and detestable curiosity. It is a subject which makes me sick with horror, so I will not say another word about it, else I shall not sleep to-night” – Charles Darwin
Although Darwin’s Parliamentary Bill did not become law, the first legislation on animal use in research, the 1876 Cruelty to Animal Act, contained many key points from Darwin’s proposal. I was particularly surprised that the debate topics around animal experiments at the end of the 19th century are still very relevant, and as Walport noticed, this discussion will probably never end. After elucidating more historical facts that led to more recent legislations, including the 1968 Medicine Act and the 1986 Animals Act, the talk focused on the contemporary debate on animal use in research, highlighting the importance of the Concordat on Openness and its significance.
Walport emphasized that in the debate around animal use in research, societal human values clash with science and a balance should be found between preventing and treating diseases and upholding these values. These values are based mainly, but not only, on evolutionary reasons and our relationship with other species. In simple terms, as human beings, we want to avoid suffering for primates, because they look very similar to us, and for cats and dogs, because they often are our faithful companions. Perhaps, our different attitude toward rats and mice explains why they are used more often in research. However, currently animal research is still necessary for scientific advancements, including basic research that could result in diagnostic and therapeutic breakthroughs. So, what can be done to advance scientifically while still addressing public concerns?
Walport reported that when science meets democracy, the government has a primary role and should make appropriate laws considering both evidence and the different views. He also reminded us that the landscape has significantly changed in the last 30 years, for example through the government strategy to protect scientists from animal rights extremists and the 2013 revised legislation on animals used in science, which is considered “the strictest in the world”. Moreover, as illustrated in the Concordat of Openness on Animal Research, scientists from Higher Education institutions and industries should engage the public in their research and be more open on animal experiments. Walport noted that is much easier to speak about the Higgs Boson than controversial topics such as animals in research, but this should not discourage scientists. Another solution is for the scientific community to continuously improve experimental design, in order to reduce the number of animals used, improve their welfare and minimise their suffering. These concepts are incorporated into the principles of the 3Rs.
I greatly enjoyed attending this lecture and seeing the different strategies scientists use to engage the public in their work. The event also provided a valuable example of the importance of engaging the public in developing scientific policy and that as scientists we cannot assume that our views will necessarily “trump the views of others”.
“We cannot fear openness, we must embrace it” Professor Sir Mark Walport
Winners of 2016 Openness Awards
Internal or Sector engagement award: Institute of Animal Technology http://www.iat.org.uk/pathway
Public Engagement Activity award: Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute http://www.cruk.manchester.ac.uk/Home
Media Engagement award: University of Leicester https://www.thesun.co.uk/living/1478364/we-go-behind-the-scenes-at-the-animal-research-facility-that-could-hold-the-secret-to-ending-obesity/
Website award: University of Manchester http://www.manchester.ac.uk/research/environment/governance/ethics/animals/
Individual Award for Outstanding Contribution to Openness in Animal Research: Andy Gay
The Openness awards and the 80th Stephen Paget memorial lecture was an event organised by Understanding Animal Research to celebrate the Concordat on Openness.