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A lab mouse

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How much does the public support animal research? Depends on the question

Embattled U.K. biomedical researchers are drawing some comfort from a new survey showing that a sizable majority of the public continues to support the use of animals in research. But there’s another twist that should interest social scientists as well: The government’s decision this year to field two almost identical surveys on the topic offers fresh evidence that the way you ask a question affects how people answer it.

Since 1999, the U.K. Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) has been funding a survey of 1000 adults about their attitudes toward animal experimentation. But this year the government asked the London-based pollsters, Ipsos MORI, to carry out a new survey, changing the wording of several questions. (The company also collected additional information, including public attitudes toward different animal species and current rules regarding their use.)

For example, the phrase “animal experimentation” was replaced by “animal research” because the latter is “less inflammatory,” notes Ipsos MORI Research Manager Jerry Latter. In addition, says Emma Brown, a BIS spokeswoman, the word research “more accurately reflects the range of procedures that animals may be involved in, including the breeding of genetically modified animals.”

But government officials also value the information about long-term trends in public attitudes that can be gleaned from the current survey. So they told the company to conduct one last round—the 10th in the series—at the same time they deployed the new survey. Each survey went to a representative, but different, sample of U.K. adults.

The changes in wording seem to have given animal researchers a bit of a ratings bump. In the new survey, some 68% agreed that “I can accept the use of animals in scientific research as long as it is for medical research purposes and there is no alternative.” By comparison, only 64% of respondents to the ongoing (trends) survey said yes when asked if they “can accept animal experimentation so long as it is for medical research purposes.” Although still strongly positive, that number was down from the roughly 75% recorded throughout the previous decade (the figure had dipped to 66% in 2012).

One confounding factor in the new survey is the addition of a reference to “no alternatives.” When that phrase is added to a comparable question in the trends survey, the positive response drops from 64% to 60%.

The use of the word “medical” seems to have an even larger impact on public attitudes. When the trends survey asked a question that didn’t use the word “medical,” i.e., “I agree with animal experimentation for all types of research where there is no alternative,” only 47% of respondents say yes. And the positive response to the comparable question in the new survey is even lower. Only 37% say “it is acceptable to use animals for all types of research where there is no alternative.”

Despite these subtleties, U.K. scientists believe the surveys show that the public will stand behind them if they speak out. “In the past, many scientists were understandably afraid of talking about their use of animals, but the climate has very much changed,” says Frances Rawle, head of policy at the Medical Research Council. “We encourage our researchers to be open about this work because it’s important that the public … are aware that research using animals is still an important and very necessary part of medical science.”

At the same time, the new survey reveals that many people don’t understand what animal research is now being done and how it is regulated. For example, nearly one in three say that scientists in the United Kingdom can use animals to test cosmetics even though the practice has been banned for more than 15 years. Only 30% feel they are “well informed” about the use of animals in research, and some 55% would like to know more about efforts to find alternatives and improve animal welfare.

That level of ignorance worries government officials. “It is of concern that most people feel uninformed about the use of animals in research,” BIS’s Brown says. “The lack of knowledge could be impacting people’s view of the need for animal research and their perception of the regulatory system around it.”