Reconciling science and animal welfare

Laboratory animals
Dr Penny Hawkins
Dr Penny Hawkins
Dr Penny Hawkins, Deputy Head of the RSPCA Research Animals Department, outlines the complex ethical considerations involved in animal experimentation, and explains why a new EU directive could improve the situation

The mass media tends to present animal experimentation as a black-and-white debate, sensationally summed up as a battle between the balaclava and the lab coat. But outside the public arena, the debate has been much more constructive for many years.

The mass media tends to present animal experimentation as a black-and-white debate, sensationally summed up as a battle between the balaclava and the lab coat. But outside the public arena, the debate has been much more constructive for many years.
Dr Penny Hawkins
The RSPCA has long worked in 'the gap', building relationships and mutual trust with scientists. As you might expect, we seek to provide a prompting and challenging voice, ensuring that appropriate questions regarding the necessity and justification for animal use are always asked on a case-by-case basis. Our principal goal is replacement of all animal experiments with humane alternatives. However, we understand that, for a host of scientific, legal and practical reasons, progress is made in a series of steps. This pragmatic approach has led to a constructive dialogue and liaison with the scientific community, which has helped to achieve significant strides forward in the acceptance and implementation of the principles of the 3Rs for humane research – the Replacement of animal experiments with humane alternatives; Reduction in numbers to the minimum required for significant results; and Refinement of experimental procedures, housing and care to minimise suffering and improve welfare.

And now there is soon to be another opportunity for scientists and the RSPCA to make real improvements to the lives of laboratory animals. A new EU directive regulating the care and use of research animals is currently being transposed into UK law, ready for implementation on 1st January 2013. There are many aspects to this legislation, and the RSPCA is closely monitoring the transposition process and striving to ensure that the comparatively good standards associated with scientific research in this country are not eroded.

But one aspect of the directive is very welcome indeed, as it will provide highly relevant information about animal use that was previously unavailable. From next January, retrospective assessment of suffering will have to be carried out and reported for all scientific procedures using animals. This means that it will be possible for everyone involved to start building a picture of the levels of pain and suffering actually experienced by research animals in this and other EU countries.

Can't we do that already? Frankly, no. The current system requires researchers to predict the potential pain, suffering or distress that may be associated with each new project. The project is given a 'severity banding' that may be mild, moderate, substantial/severe, or unclassified (where the project is conducted under general anaesthesia and the animal never regains consciousness). Currently around 2 per cent of projects are listed as 'substantial'. But there is no way of knowing how many animals were used in each project, or whether they really did experience such high levels of suffering.

Given that suffering caused by experiments is the major ethical and welfare concern for most people, that level of uncertainty about the animals' actual experience just isn't good enough. The new legislation recognises this and seeks to address this deficiency, requiring publication of the actual severity of each procedure within each project. From a UK perspective, publishing these data will mean that centrally-gathered information on which kinds of animal study cause most suffering will be available for the first time.

Laboratory chickenSo how will retrospectively reviewing and reporting suffering benefit animals? Information on which research areas cause most suffering can be used by governmental, scientific and animal welfare organisations to inform and prioritise their initiatives to reduce suffering. We hope it will also provide an incentive and opportunity for scientists to reflect on their activities and focus towards refinement. The RSPCA believes that the review process, if properly implemented, should encourage researchers to be more critical in predicting, recognising and relieving suffering. This will enable suffering to be more effectively pre-empted, alleviated or – ideally – prevented altogether in similar projects in the future.

The RSPCA believes that many members of the scientific community are dedicated to the idea of achieving better welfare and reductions in suffering, and real-life data will present a valuable opportunity to help achieve this. There is increasing recognition that reducing suffering not only benefits animals, but also improves science and enables full compliance with the spirit and letter of the law, as well as helping to address a genuine and legitimate public concern.

On 23rd February 2012 the RSPCA committed to five new pledges, one of which is to reduce the number of animals experiencing severe suffering in research and testing. This will take time to achieve, but the new EU directive will make it possible to measure progress, and the impact – both scientific and ethical – will benefit both humans and animals.

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250 MPs have signed an EDM supporting science - NOT ETHICS - as it has been proven that animal models are not capable of predicting responses in humans. Many science organisations agree with this; the best illustration of this science is outlined in the seminal work: Animal Models in Light of Evolution. There is a layman's version of this book for the non-scientist entitled FAQS about the Use of Animals in Science. The RSPCA is woefully lacking in up-to-date science and is embarrassing itself in the presence of an increasingly educated public and Parliament.
Maria - UK
A medicine cannot be licensed unless it has been tested on animals. Unless the law changes, millions of animals will suffer unnecessarily. The RSPCA is absolutely right in their comments and the new EU directive is long overdue.
Anna - UK
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