Openness is more than just a PR exercise
Today’s post in our staff blog is from the Head of Policy and Media, Chris Magee, as he discusses the confused response from opponents of animal research to Section 24 and The Concordat of Openness on Animal Research.
As strange as it might seem, last week’s announcement of the Concordat on Openness was not welcomed by anti-animal research protesters. The BUAV called it “propaganda not transparency”, NAVS went with “This concordat, penned by big-pharma lobbyists, is nothing more than a ploy”, and similarly Animal Aid called it a “public relations ploy”.
All of them wrongly conflated Openness with the abolition of “Section 24”, the so-called “secrecy clause” which requires researchers to withhold information on experiments, which was originally brought in to protect researchers from animal rights extremists. As the threat of violence has lifted, so the sector has been keen to reform the law because secrecy does us no favours whatsoever.
The government is currently consulting on Section 24, with a view to abolishing it, and has proposed a new charge of malicious campaigning. Michelle Thew from the BUAV has stated that the Freedom of Information Act offers sufficient protection to researchers, whereas the Information Commissioner disagrees with her, hence the abolition of Section 24 whilst still maintaining the protections for researchers is the government’s favoured option.
The only caveat Understanding Animal Research has ever attached to this is that IP and researchers’ identities be redacted: common-sense adaptations which recognise public bodies’ health and safety obligations, and the fact that academics live and die by ideas. The BUAV takes a similar position.
The problem is, simply abolishing section 24 won’t give us sufficient openness. One of the most confused aspects of NAVS claim that the Concordat is the work of “big-pharma lobbyists” is that pharma companies will be some of the least affected organisations – you can’t FOI the private sector. True openness is about going further than what can be demanded of researchers as a legal minimum and involves proactively making information available.
A major gripe on the part of the animal protest industry seems to be that it will be the researchers who will be explaining their work, yet who is better qualified? Surely, groups which exist purely to oppose animal research aren’t claiming that they would suddenly dispense with their customary bias? In many ways, it is not their moral position, which is irksome so much as their willingness to misrepresent research and employ pseudoscience rather than argue a “moral” point. Indeed, one of the advantages of openness for researchers is that their work is not distorted by the animal protest industry’s own PR.
A sceptic may say of the Concordat on Openness that the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Regardless of what organisations say, it will be what they do which defines the value of this enterprise. What we do know is the researchers are keen to get going. It’s no exaggeration to say that a great number of people in the UK believe that animal research amounts to chopping up dogs and monkeys, or a belief that cosmetics testing still exists. The sooner the truth can be communicated, the happier the bioscience sector will be. To dismiss this project before it has even begun is unfair, cynical and, as we will soon see, premature.
Head of Policy and Media