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Telling stories with numbers

3 February 2016

Posted by: UAR news team

Category: Communications & media

Understanding Animal Research has always promoted the importance of universities and other institutions being clear and open about their research. To pre-empt the regular FOI requests about the numbers of animals used, some institutions have taken to pro-actively publishing these on their website (often including a breakdown by species).

The other side of the story is activity groups knowing they can gain cheap column inches by press releasing the results of a handful of FOI requests, expressing shock at whatever number comes out.university website examples

Cruelty Free International (CFI; formerly the BUAV) did just this the other day when they “slammed” the five universities which accounted for the highest number of animal experiments.  In an act of lazy journalism, a number of British newspapers reproduced CFI’s press release. The Independent wrote:

Oxford conducts more tests on animals in its laboratories than any other UK university, new figures show. It heads a list compiled by the anti-vivisection organisation Cruelty Free International, with 226,739 animals used in experiments in 2014. It was followed by Edinburgh (200,861), University College London (176,901), King’s College London (165,068), and Cambridge (160,557).

Readers may be getting a sense of déjà vu. Only ten months ago CFI, then called the BUAV, had gained publicity for producing the identical story, using the previous years’ figures (the same five universities appeared in the top 5). The same article had been produced again the year before. Each time, institutions which failed to respond to the FOI were condemned, just as the top 5 were. Unsurprisingly, the five institutions that have used the most animals in the last two years are also rated within the top six British universities for Biological Sciences according to QS (the other being Imperial College London), including Cambridge and Oxford Universities who are ranked 2nd and 3rd in the world for biological sciences respectively.

University ranking The rank given on the left relates to their position in the world.

The only way this story can be completely stopped is if all universities simply publish the statistics on their website – removing the impression of secrecy that organisations like CFI use to pitch their story to a wire service or newspaper. Indeed, perhaps some should take a look at the University of British Colombia, which proactively press releases their statistics each year.

The numbers themselves are irrelevant. Whether it is 20,000 or 200,000 the animal rights groups will express shock and condemnation. CFI’s Katy Taylor announced the public would be “shocked to learn” that 200,000 animal studies had been conducted at Oxford University. On the other hand earlier this month, when discussing the 20,000 procedures that took place across all of Northern Ireland in 2014 (ten times fewer), CFI were just as outraged, telling the Belfast Telegraph:

The number of animals and the proportion of curiosity-driven research still conducted in Northern Irish laboratories, as revealed by these statistics, is unacceptable.

Unacceptable is word that CFI have used to describe almost every statistic relating to animal research. Their CEO, Michelle Thew, has been reusing the same statistics-publication-hymn sheet year on year (regardless of the changing landscape). Take their comments to the Huffington Post about the annual animal research stats releases.

In 2012, when the numbers of procedures rose 2% Thew said “the lack of progress is completely unacceptable”. In 2013, when the number of animal procedures rose 8%, Thew remarked that “This lack of progress is completely unacceptable”. Finally in 2015, after a 6% fall in the number of procedures, Thew had to finally change tack and… no, wait, “This lack of progress is completely unacceptable.” (Huff Post did not cover the story in 2014 … which I’m sure we’d all agree is completely unacceptable).

This number game has been rooted in the difficulty in deciding what is a large and what is a small number. Northern Ireland used almost 20,000 animals in 2014, but between 2001 and 2009 over 100,000 people in Northern Ireland were diagnosed with cancer, with almost 40,000 deaths. That over 200,000 animals were used at Oxford University in 2014 may seem a lot, but less so when you consider that 4 million people in the UK are diabetic, or that 160,000 people in the UK die every year from heart and circulatory diseases. We may have conducted 3.87 million procedures on animals in the UK in 2014, but we ate 900 million chickens and allowed 220 million animals to die at the claws of our domestic cats.

Number of animals killed for food etc Image from Speaking of Research

CFI is not the only animal rights organisation producing silly comments on various statistics. In last year’s statistical announcement, one of the silliest lines came from PETA UK who focused in on the least commonly used animals in research:

peta quote 

So we added some annotations.

annotated quote Given that mice, rats, fish and birds account for over 96% of all research animals they would have probably been a better choice than the 0.4% of animals which all have special protections to ensure they can only be used where no other species is suitable.

The best way we can deal with statistics is to be clear and open about the numbers of animals used.  Obviously the number of animals involved in scientific research is important, but so too  is the number of human and animal lives they can help save or improve.