Many, many years ago, while working part time in the press office of one of the UK’s biggest medical research charities, I was appalled to learn that its policy on dealing with all enquiries about experiments involving animals was not to answer them direct. Callers were instead advised to contact the Association of Medical Research Charities for a general statement about policy on animal work.
Admittedly this was in the days when animal rights activism was in one of its more violent phases. But, even so, defensiveness of this kind was hardly calculated to dispel suspicions that what went on in the labs was so appalling that it couldn’t be discussed.
A pressing need for greater openness was recognised in the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ 2005 report The ethics of research involving animals. Paragraph 15.52 of the report argued that to improve and sustain public trust, researchers at animal research facilities must find more ways to open themselves to dialogue.
“We therefore recommend that those involved in animal experimentation should take a proactive stance with regard to explaining their research, the reasons for conducting it, the actual implications for the animals involved and the beneficial outcomes they intend for society. These discussions should take the form of a two-way process, in which scientists not only inform the public about their research, but also listen to and understand concerns by members of the public.”
Easy to say - but not so easy to put into effect when the culture that had grown up was one characterised by reticence bordering on secrecy. Things did though begin to change: some research institutions took notice of the recommendation and tried to explain themselves more fully; the Government finally accepted that violent animal activism had to be taken more seriously; and polls of public opinion offered more substantial support for animal work in medical research. It therefore came as shock when a poll conducted in 2012 revealed a change of direction. Support for animal research had for some reason shown a significantly drop.
Galvanised into taking action some 40 universities, research institutes, research charities and commercial organisations with an interest in animal work agreed on a declaration - it came to be known as a “concordat” - committing themselves to greater openness.
To put flesh on these bones I was asked to chair a steering committee of interested and knowledgeable individuals charged with devising a set of commitments that signatories would agree to. This was not easy. We had to find a compromise between the demands of transparency and the understandable reluctance of research institutions to invest more time and effort in something other than the work they existed to carry out. There was also, in some cases, a fear their work might be disturbed - or worse.
In the end we formulated four clear commitments that most would-be signatories felt they could sign up to. The fourth of these commitments was to provide an annual progress report. It was not without some trepidation that we awaited the arrival of these reports at the end of the first year.
We need not have worried. There were, inevitably, a few foot draggers. But what was striking was the extent to which so many of the signatories - by now numbering just over 90 - had not only fulfilled their commitments, but in some cases gone well beyond the minimum requirements. The report is available online. Particularly valuable are some of the examples of what individual institutions have done, especially in being proactive as well as reactive. The aim in future years must be to encourage all to do as well as the best.
“In order to improve and sustain public trust,” the Nuffield report said, “researchers in animal research facilities must find more ways to open themselves to dialogue.”
The Concordat on Openness in Animal Research in the UK is doing just that.