Last month, a London-based group that supports the use of animals in biomedical science began inviting the public to take an unusual digital tour of laboratories at four U.K. research institutions. At LabAnimalTour.org, users can watch a monkey with a bolt in its skull forage in its cage at a University of Oxford neuroscience lab and a technician check on some of the 8000 mice housed in one room at the Medical Research Council’s Harwell Institute. Another video shows researchers preparing a pig for surgery at the University of Bristol.
The tour—created by the nonprofit Understanding Animal Research (UAR), which is funded by groups including universities, companies, and charities—is part of a growing push by research institutions and funders in the United Kingdom and some European countries to open up about animal experiments. Faced several years ago with polls showing declining public support for animal research, institutions there began shedding their traditional queasiness about discussing the sometimes controversial work.
At the University of Bristol, where just 2 decades ago animal rights activists planted one bomb that damaged a major building and another that targeted a veterinary scientist, there was “complete positivity” about putting their animal research on display, says Maggie Leggett, the university’s director of communications. “We believe in openness. We are using taxpayers’ money. People have a right to know.”
Such views contrast starkly with practices at many U.S. research institutions, which have been reluctant to publicly describe and defend their animal experiments. But the emerging European experience suggests that might be the wrong approach, says Tom Holder, UAR’s head of campaigns. He argues that “being more open doesn’t result in greater attacks from animal rights groups, but instead builds resilience in an institution and trust with the public.”
Opponents of animal research counter that the new transparency is merely public relations. “A whitewash web page that includes content they choose to show—it’s just propaganda,” says Justin Goodman, vice president for advocacy and public policy at the White Coat Waste Project, a Washington, D.C.–based group that lobbies for transparency in U.S.-funded animal research.
A fall in the polls
In the United Kingdom, one catalyst for the transparency push was a sudden drop in public acceptance of animal research between 2010 and 2012—a decline of 10 percentage points, to 66%, according to a government-commissioned poll. UAR, the London-based Science Media Centre, research institutions, and funders including the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council began discussing responses. The result was a 2014 Concordat on Openness on Animal Research in the United Kingdom, now signed by 116 life science organizations, including 42 universities. The signatories pledge to improve communication about their research by detailing when, how, and why they use animals, and by launching projects—such as the video tour—that pull in the public.
Last October, for the first time, the top 10 U.K. research universities joined together to publicize the number of animal experiments they conducted the previous year. The number for the entire United Kingdom in 2016 was released yesterday. The Home Office reported that 3.94 million procedures were done, a decline of 5%, or 206,000 experiments, from 2015.
Since the concordat was launched, public support for animal research has stabilized in the United Kingdom, although showing cause and effect is difficult. Meanwhile, similar efforts are underway elsewhere in Europe. In Spain, 90 institutions and societies last year signed an animal research transparency agreement. Institutions in Belgium, France, and Germany are exploring ways to emulate the U.K. model.
In the United States, a lower profile
In the United States, few research players have adopted proactive communication strategies, according to Speaking of Research (SoR), a group based in London and Washington, D.C., that advocates for biomedical research. It monitors websites of institutions that conduct or fund animal research in a dozen countries, and grades their transparency efforts. To make SoR’s list, an organization must at a minimum maintain a public web page with a position statement on animal research.
Although at least 1000 U.S. research facilities use animals, SoR’s list includes just 65 U.S. universities, as well as 39 other groups, including charities, government labs, and drug companies. Just two universities—the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the University of Wisconsin in Madison, along with several federally funded National Primate Research Centers—earn SoR’s top marks. More than half of the universities—including private research powerhouses such as Harvard, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins universities—get low grades because they don’t present case studies, videos, or extensive public-facing information about their animal research on a dedicated website.
Johns Hopkins says that it works hard to communicate its animal work by highlighting it in press releases, and that it lacks a dedicated animal research web page because its web content is decentralized. Harvard says it is treading a fine line between openness and keeping its scientists safe. Stanford pointed to a three-paragraph online statement on animal research that notes achievements such as the isolation of insulin.
In contrast, the University of Wisconsin in Madison offers a website with a long, easy reading list of its animal research highlights. It includes scores of findings with relevance to human or animal health, including the 2012 discovery in a rat model showing that iron deficiency worsens fetal alcohol syndrome, and the use of pigs to learn that Tasers can send the heart into an often-fatal abnormal rhythm. A hot topics tab includes a video responding to a campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in Norfolk, Virginia, which used public records law to obtain stark photos of a cat with a steel post implanted in its skull and wires connected to brain electrodes through holes drilled in her skull, used by university researchers to study how the brain processes sound. In the video, now-retired neuroscience chairman Tom Yin explains how the experiments in cats made clear that two cochlear implants would help deaf people more than one. The video opens with a formerly deaf man singing the praises of his implants.
Because the University of Wisconsin’s 7-year-old website was up and running when PETA launched its campaign, “we had this place to respond,” says Terry Devitt, the university’s director of research communications. “We could tell our own story.”
Some research advocates worry the anemic U.S. outreach is allowing animal research opponents to define the debate, and may be contributing to a slide in public support for animal studies. Approval of animal research hit a new low in a U.S. Gallup poll released in May; 51% said “medical testing on animals” is “morally acceptable,” down from 65% in 2001. Disapproval was highest among adults younger than 35. Such numbers suggest that “in the U.S. there has not been enough proactive communication,” says Kirk Leech, executive director of the London-based European Animal Research Association.
One group, Americans for Medical Progress (AMP) in Washington, D.C., wants to change that. Last month it launched a website, Come See Our World. It provides photos and videos of research animals, along with background information on the experiments. Individual U.S. scientists are becoming more willing to publicly discuss their animal work, says Paula Clifford, AMP’s executive director. But “the sticking point is the risk assessment of the higher-ups” at research institutions, she says.
Leech, for one, believes U.S. institutions must become more tolerant of the risks of openly describing their animal work. If research advocates keep “sticking our heads in the sand and hoping [animal rights activists] will go away,” he predicts, “we will fail.”
To be sure, animal researchers on both sides of the Atlantic can be anxious about going public. Andrew Parker, a University of Oxford physiologist who uses rhesus macaques to study binocular vision, is one of the researchers who speaks about his work at LabAnimalTour.org. “I have had a number of people tell me that ‘It’s quite brave’—which in the U.K. usually is code for ‘risky,’” he says. But “the climate has changed” in United Kingdom, he believes. “There is more [public] willingness to listen to the discussion of and opinions of scientists on animal research—which in itself builds confidence.”