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‘MORE can and must be done to improve the quality of debate about research involving animals.’
It may sound obvious, but that is one of the more important lessons to be drawn from a report on the ethics of animal research, which was published by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics last week.* As the report points out, issues raised by research involving animals have aroused intense debate, particularly in the UK, with discussion on the subject often being portrayed as being between two extremes – either ‘for’ or ‘against’. The issues, the report makes clear, are far more complicated than that. By analysing the issues carefully, and examining the broad spectrum of views that are held, the report not only highlights the need for better debate; it makes a useful contribution in its own right.
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics is funded by the Medical Research Council, the Nuffield Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, and aims to ‘identify and define ethical questions raised by recent advances in biological and medical research in order to respond to, and anticipate, public concern’. The breadth of opinion considered in its report may in part be a reflection of the composition of the working party that produced it. This included members of animal protection groups, along with philosophers, a lawyer, and scientists from academia and industry. Given this diversity, it is not surprising that the 18 members of the working party could not always agree on everything. However, one of the more encouraging aspects of the 335-page report is a ‘consensus statement’ from all of the working party’s members. As one might expect, the report has its fair share of caveats, mainly of an ‘on the one hand this’ and ‘on the other hand that’ nature. Nevertheless, the statement is striking for the unanimity of views on, for example, the need for the validity, usefulness and relevance of specific types of animal research to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, the need to avoid duplication (as opposed to replication) of experiments involving animals, and the importance of the 3Rs – replacement, reduction and refinement – in keeping animal suffering to a minimum. That agreement could be reached on such issues underlines one of the main messages of the report, namely, that by encouraging informed debate and avoiding polarisation of views, progress is possible. All members of the working party agreed that the use of violence and intimidation to pursue the case against animal research is ‘morally wrong and politically insidious’. It also has the effect of stifling debate.
Like the report in 2002 from the House of Lords Select Committee on Animals in Scientific Procedures (VR, August 24, 2002, vol 151, pp 221, 223-224), the Nuffield Council’s report puts great store on the 3Rs, not just in minimising animal suffering but also in helping to resolve some conflicts of opinion. It puts particular emphasis on replacement, arguing that more should be done to devise and develop appropriate alternatives. One consequence of the House of Lords report was the creation in the UK of a national centre to promote and advance the 3Rs (VR, May 29, 2004, vol 154, p 673), and it may be more than a coincidence that, on publication of the Nuffield Council’s report, the Government announced additional funding for the centre, £3 million for the years 2006 to 2008.
The Nuffield Council’s report notes that, in the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, the UK has the most detailed legislative framework concerning research involving animals in the world. Like the House of Lords report, it points out that it is not just regulation in itself that is important; it is also important to promote best practice and further develop ‘the culture of care’. It suggests that the ethical review process should play a more active role in promoting the 3Rs, and that published papers should include more information about how the 3Rs have been applied. It calls for further clarification of the statistics on scientific procedures published by the Home Office, suggesting that they should include more information on the level of suffering involved in procedures. It also suggests that the Home Office should obtain and make available information on the extent to which the objectives of experiments are achieved.
More information about project licence applications is already being made available by the Home Office (VR, April 2, 2005, vol 156, p 427). Providing even more will clearly present difficulties, but may be a price that has to be paid if debate is to be properly informed. It is equally important that society should be made aware of the scientific, medical and other benefits of research involving animals; as the Nuffield Council points out, information about selected aspects of research without provision of any further context can be misleading.
The Nuffield Council’s report concludes that it is unrealistic to assume that all animal experimentation will end in the short term. ‘It is crucial, therefore, to create a climate in which the necessity and justification for using animals is assessed and discussed fairly with due respect for all views.’ It will be useful reading for veterinary surgeons, helping them to develop their own opinions and to answer questions from interested clients.