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U.K. Looks to Scrap Confidentiality Rules for Animal Research

The United Kingdom has proposed lifting outdated confidentiality rules that ban the release of information about animal research.

Under Section 24 of the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, the Home Office cannot release any information about animal research carried out in the country. This includes, for example, information about people or places applying for animal testing licenses and inspection visit reports. But these rules are now “out of step with [government] policy on openness and transparency,” said Home Office Minister Norman Baker in a public consultation launched yesterday.

Sharing information more openly will “help to provide a constructive dissemination of technical knowledge” and will lower the risk of duplication of animal experiments, the government says.

Both animal rights groups and researchers using animals have praised the proposal as a step in the right direction. “Freedom of access to information is … the only means by which research can be properly scrutinised in order to ensure the best possible outcome for people and animals,” said the animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in a statement issued today.

Chris Magee, head of policy at the pressure group Understanding Animal Research (UAR) in London, tells ScienceInsider that withholding information does not help scientists and their work, because it leaves a “vacuum that activists can fill in with misleading information.” “Explaining what really goes on inside labs is the best way to counter the sometimes hysterical claims of so-called animal rights activists,” says Wendy Jarrett, chief executive of the organization. The secrecy is also unnecessary because the threat of violent extremists is lower now than it was in the 1980s and 1990s, Magee adds.

This month, UAR and more than 40 science organizations will publish a joint document, or concordat, laying out how they plan to be more open and transparent about their animal research work.

Private companies welcomed the government's proposal but sounded a note of caution. Louise Leong, R&D policy director of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, said in a statement yesterday that drugmakers “would be looking for reassurance that any amendments to this Act do not compromise the safety of people who work in animal research,” as well as their intellectual property and “commercially sensitive information.”

The government's proposal seems to have taken these concerns on board: It suggests scrapping Section 24 while protecting the names of places, people, and their intellectual property. Under the government's favored scenario, disclosing animal research information “with malicious intent” would also become a criminal offense.

Indeed, when the U.K. government considered repealing Section 24 more than 10 years ago, then–Science Minister David Sainsbury said the biggest concern was “the question of penalties for people who improperly put that information into the public domain” and taking a tough stance against “animal terrorism.”

In 2004, the government finally decided to keep the rules unchanged. Now, observers expect Section 24 to be scrapped, but don't know what will replace it. The public consultation closes on 13 June; the government says it will then “work quickly” to analyze the comments and propose a final option.