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Transparency is the way forward to public understanding and acceptance of animal research

Photo credit: Understanding Animal Research, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license

In the fall of 2021, a petition circulated in the U.K. calling for the government to “ban all UK animal testing, including for the development of cosmetics, household products, and medicines.” Over 230,000 U.K. citizens signed, despite the fact that testing cosmetics on animals has been illegal in the country for over two decades. Researchers working with nonhuman animals in the lab are continually frustrated by the public’s general lack of knowledge about animal research, as well as the outright misinformation. A 2018 survey revealed that the public consider “secrecy” as the characteristic most commonly associated with animal research. Is this tension inevitable?

Animal research organizations are motivated to practice discretion, of course; staff associated with animal research facilities have long been targeted for harassment by animal rights activists (though outright violence against researchers is fortunately on the decline). At first glance, the statistics on the public perception of animal research in the United States can certainly be disheartening. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that Americans were near evenly divided on the issue of using nonhuman animals in scientific research, with 47% approving and 52% expressing opposition. At second glance though, these numbers offer a great deal of nuance. Diverging from the hyper-politicized discourse we may expect to find around topics related to science and regulatory oversight, support for animal research is largely nonpartisan. Americans living in rural areas, incidentally, are often more likely than urban dwellers to approve of the use of animals in research. Importantly, the ethics of animal research is a multidimensional topic. Survey questions written very generally (e.g., “Do you approve of using animals in scientific research?”) do not come close to capturing the complexity of people’s feelings about different kinds of research and different species of animal. This means that a member of the public who expresses staunch disapproval of, say, invasive studies in dogs, may nevertheless be supportive of vaccine trials conducted in mice.

Another major finding of the survey was that respondents who scored well on an index of science knowledge were more likely to say they approved of using animals in scientific research. Encouraged by findings like these, many animal researchers have begun to promote greater transparency in their institutions. This movement is exemplified by the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research developed in 2014 by the U.K. biomedical research community. Indeed, studies testing interventions focused on transparency have found that when participants are provided with information about animal research procedures and regulations, they tend to shift their views (Mendez et al., 2022; Mills et al., 2018). Being informed is key.

Further reading:

360 Lab Animal Tours offers virtual walking tours of the animal facilities at the University of Bristol, University of Oxford, MRC Harwell Institute, and Pirbright Institute, with photos, videos, and detailed maps.

Primer from the USDA Animal Welfare Information Center on the “3 R’s” (Replacement, Reduction, and Refinement), which represent the central ethical principle guiding regulatory oversight of animal research.

Health Timeline curated by the UK-based organization Understanding Animal Research. The graphic covers over a century of medical advances that have relied on animal research, including blood transfusions, insulin, Vitamin C as a curative for scurvy, kidney transplants, and the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine.

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