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U.K. Scientists Welcome New Policy on Animal Research

LONDON—The number of live animals used in the United Kingdom for scientific research will not be capped, the British government announced today. Instead, a policy document unveiled this morning says the government will only "encourage" researchers to use alternatives whenever possible. The number of animal experiments has been on the rise in recent years in the United Kingdom, as it has in many other countries.

The policy document, presented at a press conference by David Willetts, the U.K. minister for universities and science, has reassured scientists. But animal rights lobbyists are critical. The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) called it “a missed opportunity for the Government to make meaningful and lasting change for the millions of animals suffering in UK laboratories.”

“Britain is a world leader in science and it has also got a great tradition of concern about the welfare of animals," Willetts said at today's briefing. "What we do in this document is bring these two great traditions together in our delivery plan.”

The Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties agreed to tackle the issue of animal studies in their 2010 deal to form a coalition government. Despite the stated ambition to reduce the number of animal experiments, their numbers have been steadily rising—a trend that started in the early 2000s.

The most recent data available show that in 2012, researchers conducted more than 4.11 million experiments on animals—well over 11,000 procedures a day and a rise of 8% over 2011, according to Home Office figures. The rapid growth is caused primarily by the massive use of genetically modified animals.

Most animals used in scientific research in the United Kingdom are bred specifically for this purpose, in line with the 1988 Protection of Animals Act. However, wild-caught primates are also used at times, if the scientists can provide exceptional and specific justification.

The government says that the policy paper, Working to reduce the use of animals in scientific research, is designed to balance the desire for reducing the number of animal experiments with the need to protect U.K. science and innovation. It relies on the long-established international principle of “the 3Rs”: replace animal tests with other studies wherever possible, reduce the number of animals involved, and refine procedures to minimize suffering.

But Willetts refused to discuss what kind of reduction the government is aiming for; the approach isn’t “about a numerical target," he said, but about encouraging more ethical research methods. “The commitment is to 'work to reduce the use of animals.' Ultimately the final figure will depend on patterns of scientific advance,” he said.

The government’s plan outlines the need for more transparency and openness. The public should be better informed about what is actually going on in animal research labs, says Dominic Wells, chair of the Animal Science Group, a special interest group within the U.K.-based Society of Biology. Scientists should be reporting what happens to the animals “rather than just giving the numbers.”

Wendy Jarrett, chief executive of Understanding Animal Research in London, a group that tries to promote understanding about advances stemming from animal experiments, welcomes the openness initiative. More than 40 U.K. organizations involved in bioscience are now drawing up the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research, a document that will set out ways for biomedical researchers to explain what they are doing with animals and why, she said in a statement today. “We support all efforts to replace, reduce and refine the use of animals in research and we are delighted by today's announcement that the Government will be giving the [National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research] even more funding," she added.

But BUAV CEO Michelle Thew calls the plan “a whitewash” that “shows that the Government has in reality given up on what it promised to do and that is to reduce the number of animal experiments.” The National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS) called for much stricter measures including a ban on monkey experiments. “Animal experiments have risen year on year [...] whilst the Government has twiddled its thumbs,” NAVS Chief Executive Jan Creamer said in a statement. “Such crude and outdated animal research methods can be replaced with quicker, cheaper and scientifically superior methods—the cutting edge of modern science.”

Willetts said the government hoped its policy would also set animal research standards elsewhere. Animal testing of cosmetics, for example, is not carried out in the United Kingdom, but still exists in some other countries. “We … try and persuade them that they don’t need to use animal testing in cosmetics,” Willetts said.