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UAR staff blog: All about openness

22 October 2014

Posted by: Bella Williams

Category: Staff blog

concordat-sig.jpgHead of Engagement, Bella Williams, writes about the need for openness to be driven by conversations as well as by organisational commitment

Over 80 organisations have now signed the Concordat on Openness on animal research in the UK, pledging greater openness about the use of animals in research. This comes at a time when the most recent poll from Ipsos MORI showed that 44% of people think that organisations conducting animal research are secretive, while just 8% of people think those organisations are open about their work.

Why does this need to change? Because people believe that things are hidden for a reason, and that research organisations won’t talk about their animal work because it is too terrible. Because 31% of people still think that testing cosmetics on animals is permitted in the UK.

If our arguments are mired in absolutes and misconceptions it is near impossible to have meaningful discussions about how we can provide better conditions for laboratory animals, and how we can ensure that animals are used in well-designed studies yielding meaningful results. 

Misconceptions about animal research can lead to patients with diseases for which there are few treatments feeling conflicted. They support the work of researchers developing understanding of their condition, but do not want to support animal suffering. It is important that they have information about how animals are looked after so that they can decide for themselves where they stand. 

Meanwhile researchers and technicians still feel that they cannot talk about their jobs in a social context. Some do not even tell members of their family what they do for a living, and tell their children not to talk about their work to anyone at school.This culture of secrecy is partly borne out of a fear of attack, but also from not wanting to grandstand or be constantly engaging in discussions on animal research. Those of us who do understand the animal research issue do not want every conversation we have with someone new to be about the rights and wrongs of animal research. Understanding this need for engagement does not make it a favourite topic of conversation.

While the Concordat on Openness is endorsed and committed to by those running research organisations, it is the individuals in the labs and animal units who must take up the challenge of being open about their work. Openness is built by those who want to make a difference and explain to people why they use animals in research, why they think their work is important and what they do to prevent or reduce the suffering of the animals in their care.

Greater openness means accepting that not everyone is comfortable with the idea of research that uses animals or feels that all scientific endeavours are justified because they might lead to a new medical treatment. The reality is most people do not have extreme views on animal research, but have a gut feeling that it is something unpleasant that they would sooner not think about. 

There are many complex issues in animal research. Not all models are predictive, poor experimental design and reporting can make published findings of limited value to others and procedures that look unpleasant may cause minimal distress to the animal, while others may cause distress that is not apparent to the untrained eye.

Not every issue reduces to a convenient sound-bite and communicating on these subjects is difficult. Most organisations prefer to avoid them. But talking about them allows us to push the boundaries and develop better science and better animal welfare. It also means openness is no longer about glib statements and the ‘most acceptable’ forms of research. It allows people to consider complex issues and weigh up where they stand. 

Not everyone needs or wants to be an expert, but the polls show that many people are interested in understanding more about how and why we use animals in laboratories. For there to be better understanding we must challenge some of the misconceptions.

So what can individuals do to make a difference? Be a shade braver: talk to family and friends, engage in tricky conversations, explain to teachers that there are two sides to this issue. For greater openness we all need to speak up, ensuring that misconceptions don’t go unchallenged and being honest and upfront about ethically complex issues.