As the science correspondent of a top UK newspaper said to me earlier this year “Call me cynical, but there are very few things that kill a story quite like having “EU Directive” in the title.”
He was referring of course to the snappily-titled “Directive 2010/63/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 September 2010 on the Protection of Animals Used for Scientific Purposes” which was transposed into UK law in December 2012. This is how the various EU countries are doing as regards implementation:
In December 2012, the UK’s House of Commons Statutory Instruments committee unanimously approved the amendments to the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, 1986 which harmonised UK laws on animal research with the new EU Directive 2010/63. All that remains is for the Home Office to develop supplementary guidance which will clarify specific aspects of the regulations.
The changes, as far as UK science is concerned, are minimal partly because the UK was allowed to keep its standards where they were higher, for instance granting special protection to dogs, cats, primates and equidae. We continue to have a similarly equipped inspectorate, and it appears we will have a similar ethical review process, but these are the sort of details currently being hammered out in the post-legislation guidance.
Another reason for this similarity is the fact the UK has been at the forefront of developing the new legislation, bringing the rest of Europe up to the UK’s standards of animal welfare, whilst harmonising legislative differences and dispensing with some of the red tape that had built up over 30 years that wasted time without improving animal welfare.
Some animal rights and abolitionist organisations continue to fret that regulations will somehow be substantially reduced as the guidance is developed over the next several months but if anything the risks run the other way, with unnecessary red tape in the form of data duplication, or the inclusion of details that benefit only campaigning groups which thrive on the misrepresentation of biological research.
There is also a rather flippant suggestion that project licences should be published, with personal or commercial information redacted, which appears to misunderstand the fact that the triangulation even of redacted information with published materials and the known specialisms of different researchers or research facilities make identifying individuals a moment’s work.
This has serious security, legal and commercial ramifications for some researchers and the institutions charged with protecting their health and safety. That said, it should be possible to release more information to the public in the future, if the project licenses are correctly designed and the ground rules set in a certain way, but once again it is researchers, not campaigning groups, leading the way in finding a practicable solution.
This approach is also in line with the Declaration of Openness signed by over forty leading research institutions and funders. Openness is something UK scientists hope will help to reassure the public, as they may come to see the true costs and the true benefits of research for themselves, not through the distorting filter of campaigning groups.
Nevertheless, the de facto changes to UK regulation of animal research are small – the UK has a system, it certainly works well for animals and it should remain so. The Directive is an important step in bringing many European countries towards the high laboratory animal welfare standards that exist in the UK. Although the Directive does not match the UK’s strict animal welfare laws in every area, the UK will retain its higher standards in all areas where they exist.
Moreover, in many cases scientists have objectives in common with animal welfare groups. Scientists want a well-financed inspectorate: they speed up project approvals and help with legal compliance. Scientists want clean, happy animals: they make better test subjects, and the meme of the “mad scientist” torturing animals is, after all, the construction of a fevered imagination – a foul-tasting cocktail of H.G. Wells, Frankenstein and internet footage of rare and atypical abuses.
Of course, anti-research groups will still push to gain more influence over the ethical review process, such as via Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Bodies (AWERBs), which will preview project licenses, as happens now, at a local level. Abolitionists want to sit on these boards so they can more easily dig up campaigning material and have started describing the current system as a “cosy box ticking exercise” or similar, as usual implying a dark conspiracy where there is none in order to wangle a seat at the table, despite lacking credibility, understanding or perspective.
They may be disappointed; however, since another change taking place from 2014 will be the retrospective assessment of suffering. For years, project licence holders have overestimated the suffering an experiment may engender in order to avoid accidentally exceeding the terms of their project licence. The abolitionists have then dined out on the millions of examples of suffering they think they’ve identified, when in fact they have once again misunderstood what they are reading. From 2014 onwards however they might just find themselves having to vet three and a half million procedures that are no more severe than temporary discomfort or a blood draw: hardly the grim picture of torture suggested by their literature.
Speaking of Research will continue to keep you updated on developments to the EU Directive and its implementation across Europe.
Speaking of Research