Public Opinion and the Importance of Transparency in the UK

The UK has a long history of animal rights activism and many might expect the public to be a difficult crowd to win over. However over the years the British public have expressed overwhelming support for the use of animal experiments for medical purposes. In 2010 90% were conditional acceptors (that is agreeing with medical research provided suffering is minimised and there are no alternative methods – all of which must be true if a project is to be licensed in the UK) and 60% were unconditional accepts.

So it was with some disappointment that the release of the latest Ipsos MORI polls which show a 5% drop in conditional accepts to 85%, and a 5% drop in unconditional accepts to 55%. To put in perspective, the British public still firmly support the humane, regulated use of animal research in concordance with the use of the 3Rs. It was notable that the survey found that support for animal research and enthusiasm for science was highest among those with higher levels of educational attainment, which should noth be surprising as the Ipsos MORI report notes that “Greater knowledge of science tends to garner more favourability towards it – so ABs [a higher socioeconomic group] are more positive about science’s role (84%), just as they claim to be best informed about scientific developments”.

Nonetheless, David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science, attended a press conference on the release of the statistics stating that animal research forms a small but vital component of bio-medical research. He also offered examples of some of the UK Medical Research Council funded work in dementia that involved animal work.

So how have research institutions and advocacy groups responded to the (albeit small) drop in support by the public? With action!

Understanding Animal Research have organised the “Declaration on Openness on Animal Research,” signed by 41 institutions including medical research charities (inc. Cancer Research UK and Alzheimer’s Research UK), Universities (inc. Oxford and Cambridge), Pharmaceuticals (inc. GSK and AstraZeneca) and other institutions. Those signatories have agreed:

The life sciences sector is at the forefront of developing ground breaking treatments and cures which transform the lives of humans and animals. To do this we need to increase understanding of normal biological functions and disease. Where possible, we use cells grown in a lab, computer models and human volunteers. When this isn’t possible, research may involve animals. When we need to use animals, we strive to reduce the number needed, and seek to develop viable alternatives.

Public acceptance of the use of animals in research has been strong over the last decade. Public scrutiny has also played an essential role in building the world-leading ethical framework that supports our research and ensures it meets the highest welfare standards, only using animals where no alternative exists.

Confidence in our research rests on the scientific community embracing an open approach and taking part in an ongoing conversation about why and how animals are used in research and the benefits of this. We need to continue to develop open dialogue between the research community and the public.

We, the undersigned, commit to work together to establish a Concordat that will develop principles of openness,

It is fantastic to see institutions agreeing to do more to explain to the public why and how animal research is carried out. We, at Speaking of Research, hope that many more institutions get on board with this Concordat. With almost two thirds of the general public claiming to be poorly informed about animal research, it is important that science institutions do more to fill these gaps in public understanding, let animal rights groups attempt to plug the gap themselves (leading to many of the common myths of research being propagated). After all, the Ipsos-MORI poll shows very clearly that the better informed people are about the role played by animal research in medical science, the more likely they are to support it.

In the meantime Speaking of Research continue to play their part in informing people around the world about animal research. A major campaign at the moment is the Science Action Network, which we urge you to get involved in.

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