Cambridge commits to greater transparency over animal testing

Megan Hughes 20 May 2014

The University of Cambridge has signed the Concordat for Openness in Animal Research in the UK, bringing it into line with more than seventy other organisations. By signing the agreement, the University has pledged to introduce and maintain clarity in animal-based research.

According the University’s official website, the decision to commit to openness is the result of two years of discussion within the bioscience community. It cites data collected by Ipsos MORI in 2012, which showed that members of the public lacked trust in both research groups and their regulators.

By agreeing to the Concordat, Cambridge University has signed up to its four commitments, which include being clear about “when, why and how” animals are used in research. They are also required to improve their communications with the public and the media about experiments, facilitate the public in finding out about animal-based research, and share their experience with others.

The Chair of the Working Group which masterminded the Concordat, Wendy Jarrett, described it as “an excellent opportunity to dispel these myths” of animal maltreatment, and to “give the public a chance to see the ground-breaking research that is being done on its behalf.”

The news comes four months after the institution was heavily criticised for experiments performed on monkeys, which were described as “sickening” by animal rights groups including Animal Aid. They accused researchers of maltreating the animals by denying them of food and water, restraining them for long periods of time, sawing their skulls open, and embedding electrodes into their brains.

At the time, the University defended its procedures, arguing that it adheres to UK regulations, which are “the most rigorous animal welfare regulations in the world”.

Commenting on the commitment to openness, the University’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz underlined the necessity of experimentation on animals in making scientific breakthroughs. Without it, he claimed, “we would have few of the modern medicines, antibiotics, vaccines and surgical techniques that we take for granted”.

“We are proud of our work, which meets the highest standards of animal welfare, and always strive to reduce the number of animals used. But we recognise the need to take opening and honestly about research and why the use of animals is necessary.”

Isobel Hutchinson, a campaigner at Animal Aid, the UK’s largest animal rights group, expressed scepticism that the Concordat would change anything. Describing the commitment as “an elaborate public relations exercise”, Hutchinson claimed that it has been “designed to boost dwindling public confidence in vivisection by carefully controlling the flow of information.”

The campaigner argued that: “If Cambridge University was genuinely committed to openness, it would not pick and choose what it releases but it would support a repeal of Section 24.” This is an apparently notorious clause in animal testing law which is employed to prevent the release of “even the most basic information”, according to Hutchinson.

Speaking to The Cambridge Student on behalf of Animal Aid, she is adamant that the Freedom of Information Act “would provide an ideal mechanism for the release of information” were it to apply to animal research.

Julia Spindel, a Biologist and Cambridge resident, agreed that it is important “not to hide the realities of animal research from the public”. Nonetheless, she explained, it is important to make sure that being open does not conflict with the experiments themselves, which could lead to such studies being “over-restrained”.

“There are innumerable useful discoveries which have come from research involving experiments on animals, and it would be a shame if these were impeded by clumsy regulations designed to ensure an unnecessary degree of openness.”

Beth, a Cambridge University medic, admitted that animal research was “regrettable” but “necessary because we gain so much knowledge from it that we wouldn’t get otherwise.” Speaking to TCS, she affirmed the importance of “trying to limit the harm and suffering the animals go through” which is best done by “being open and honest about the way in which they are used.”

She acknowledged that there are already constraints on animal testing, expressing worry that “now people can see what happens, they might not agree with it, which could potentially limit testing more than necessary”. On the other hand, she argued, “if people are aware of the transparency the Concordat introduces into the process then they will likely be more supportive of the experiments”.