University of Leicester shows how it’s done as new animal research facility opens

In a ceremony at the University of Leicester today City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby opened the new Central Research Facility, marking the beginning of a new era for animal research there.  Speaking at the ceremony, the Mayor welcomed the University’s investment, saying:

The University of Leicester has a well-deserved, worldwide reputation for its pioneering research, which has been key to many life-saving medical advances. The opening of this new facility shows the University’s continued commitment to breaking new ground. This is something that the whole city can take pride in.”

Leicester City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby at the opening of the University of Leicester’s new Central Research Facility.

Professor Mike Barer, Director of Research in the School of Medicine, Biological Sciences and Psychology and a noted expert on tuberculosis, highlighted the past achievements of Leicester scientists, before commenting on the benefits that the new laboratory would bring to both scientific research and animal welfare at the university.

The University of Leicester is recognised nationally as a leading centre standing up for animal research for medical benefit conducted within a clear moral and ethical framework balancing consideration of humans and animals.

The facility provides an exceptional environment for both animals and investigators. Of particular note are the new facilities for imaging applied to animals such that many less subjects will be required to achieve valid results.”

Some examples of this work were included in a series of case studies of recent and current animal research published by the University of Leicester.

A few hours before the opening ceremony  Tom Feilden from the BBC’s flagship “Today” news program (item begins at 08.49) noted the University’s unusual openness about the new animal research facility, as Professor Mike Barer and Dr Claire Gibson showed him around and discussed the research bring undertaken there.

Should we be surprised at this openness? Well, perhaps not.

Back in 2010 in a post entitled “Leicester – The New British Battleground?” we reported on how an animal rights campaign called “Stop the Leicester Animal Lab” had launched a campaign against the new laboratory, complete with false allegations about secret unlicensed research involving dogs (seriously, we’re not making this up…they did). The University responded in an unusually forthright way by inviting a local journalist to tour their existing medical sciences building (which the new lab will replace), talk to scientists working there and see for themselves the conditions in which the animals are kept.  The outcome of this visit was an article in “This is Leicestershire” that was overwhelmingly positive towards the scientists who work there, and lambasted the animal rights campaign for being “economical with the truth” (which was putting it mildly).  “Stop the Leicester Animal Lab” appear to have run out of steam soon afterwards, and construction of the new laboratory continued. In the end Leicester did not become a battlefield, and the credit for this must go to the University for taking a strong stance in support of the work its scientists do.

The University of Leicester taught us an important lesson in 2010, that “No comment” is never the right response to animal rights campaigns. By engaging positively with the press and the public the University dispelled the animal rights lies and misinformation, and helped people to understand the value of animal research and its crucial role in advancing medicine. It’s great to see the University of Leicester continue to show how it’s done!

With public support for animal research in the UK remaining high one might be tempted to ask if universities, research institutes, charities and individual researchers still need to do more to engage with the public around the issue of animal research.

The answer couldn’t be clearer. Yes!

While some organizations have greatly improved their communication on animal research, many others can do a lot more. Despite the substantial decline in animal rights extremist incidents in the UK over the past decade, other threats to biomedical research remain. A worrying trend is the increasing number of transport companies that have declared the will no longer carry animals that are destined to be used in research, as noted in a guest post on this blog by Eric Raemdonck and a strong editorial published in Nature only last week.  While such limits on laboratory animal transport may now appear to be more a nuisance than a real problem, and affect only a small proportion of studies directly, the reality is that if this trend continues it may greatly hinder an increasingly international biomedical research community. As the Nature Editorial states:

If individual scientists wait until they are personally affected — until the day when that mouse carefully bred in Shanghai or Singapore or Stockholm cannot be had for love nor money in San Francisco — it will be long past too late to mount the vigorous, public campaign in defense of animal research that is so sorely called for at this moment.

As researchers join this battle — and join it, they must — they should, as a first step, work through their institutions, academic societies and umbrella groups to make an urgent, articulate, unified case to UPS and FedEx that the shipping of animals, mammalian and other­wise, is essential for both biomedical research and scientific education.”.

We strongly echo that call for coordinated action by the international scientific community, and add that institutions, academic societies and individual scientists also need to follow the great example set by the University of Leicester and celebrate the endeavours and accomplishments of animal research and the scientists who undertake it. Only by ensuring that the public fully appreciates the importance of animal research to medical progress in the 21st century will we be able to safeguard that progress.

Paul Browne