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Closed minds: the media and animal research

As researchers commit to greater openness, the media has an important role to play, says Adrian Deeny

Eduardo Fuentes illustration (12 June 2014)

Source: Eduardo Fuentes

After years of intimidation from animal rights extremists, researchers are becoming more open about the use of animals in research.

As recently reported in these pages, more than 70 scientific organisations, including universities, charities, research councils and learned societies, have now signed the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research. It commits researchers to explaining when, why and how animals are used, and to enhance communications with the media and public about animal research.

But a story splashed across the front page of the Daily Mirror last week brought home the fact that openness is not a one-way street: it also requires a responsible press.

The article, headlined “Horror tests on kittens”, was emotionally charged, factually inaccurate and misleadingly illustrated with photographs from experiments in the US that bore no relation to the University College London studies.

It highlighted research published in The Journal of Neurophysiology in 2012 and 2013, a reanalysis of data from experiments conducted more than a decade ago on adult cats under anaesthetic that suffered no pain. Calling research on anaesthetised adult cats “kitten torture” is akin to calling a brain surgeon a “baby torturer” for operating on adults under anaesthetic.

Since the newspaper article was published, UCL has received threats of physical violence and vandalism, and researchers may feel that their personal safety is now threatened as a result of irresponsible reporting, a matter of great concern.

The bioscience sector has for too long lived in the shadow of fear from animal rights activity, but thankfully this is changing, largely because of more robust policing, a decline in extremist violence against individuals and organisations, and a more balanced approach by the media. It is this change that has given organisations in the bioscience sector the confidence to sign the Concordat.

This makes the report published in the Daily Mirror particularly disappointing.

The version of the article that appeared in print failed to point out the significance of the studies for the understanding of biological processes – for example, how the visual system works.

The eye research conducted between 1996 and 2002 produced a number of research papers and findings. The most recently published findings provide insights into how the retina of the eye communicates with the brain, helping scientists to understand how to minimise the effect of retinal lesions and to develop ways to improve vision, including retinal implants and prosthetic retinal devices to enhance remaining vision.

Spinal cord research conducted in 1992 investigated how the brain controls breathing movements. Understanding how this control is normally achieved is essential in developing treatments for spinal cord injury. Data from these specific experiments may be particularly important in the development of procedures that could re-establish vital functions, such as the ability to cough, which are lost or severely damaged in spinal cord injury.

The cat is no longer used as the model for this type of work, as the previous experiments yielded all the data we need on the nervous system of cats as a model of human disease. Primary research in the area has now moved on to include work in genetically modified mice and human trials.

Even though these data are from animal studies conducted years ago, reanalysis using up-to-date techniques demonstrates that the information remains relevant today. Reusing data helps us to reduce the use of animals.

Surveys suggest that a majority of the general public support the use of animals in research: in 2012, public support was at 85 per cent, according to a poll by Ipsos Mori. Apart from at the extremes, there is an understanding that for research to continue to deliver solutions to the challenges of disease, animal research will remain necessary where no alternatives exist. Regulations are designed to ensure that animal research is carried out only when there is no alternative technique, and 98 per cent of procedures involving animals involve rodents, fish and birds. Nonetheless, animal research is a subject that will continue to divide people.

In an effort to improve understanding of their work, many organisations are now opening their doors to journalists in order to permit the veil of myth and mystique surrounding such work to be lifted. Researchers and animal care staff are rightly proud of their high standards in animal welfare and science, and they and their institutions are committed to the principles of the “3Rs” of replacement, refinement and reduction of animals in research.

Universities are not arguing for the pendulum of debate to swing to a pro-animal research stance – far from it. They expect the press to hold the sector to account when things go wrong, to challenge the sector to defend the use of animals and to voice the concerns of the public.

But if the bioscience community is committed to helping the public understand more about animal research, then the media, too, must shoulder some responsibility and present a balanced argument and debate about such a serious issue. In other words, the sector seeks a fair hearing.

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