New UK Animal Research Law is a Victory for Animals and Scientists

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:

Adapted from the excellent
Adapted from the excellent (Click to enlarge)

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

6 thoughts on “New UK Animal Research Law is a Victory for Animals and Scientists

  1. Blood donation is a fantastic and important thing – it is responsible for saving lives around the world. Large amounts of research also uses human blood donation (though usually with clinical volunteers rather than just from the blood bank).

    Nonetheless, sometimes they need animal blood because they’re testing for the effect of something they have done to the animal prior (e.g. they have given it a chemical, or they have induced a condition etc.) – so you can’t ask for the blood you give at your local blood donor session to be used instead of animals.

    Remember, animal research can only be used where there is no viable alternative.

  2. Thanks Tom – I’m afraid I don’t understand all of that, but it does help me a bit. It’s a shame everyone doesn’t know about your great website! I hope you don’t think my next question is stupid (I’m not a scientist like you) but, I regularly donate blood to the NHS van that comes to our local sports club -can’t I just ask for that blood to be used instead of the animals?

  3. ‘Severe’? Is that like when they take too much blood or make them have too many babies? I’d like to read more about it please – where did u get the 3% fact from? Thanks :-)

    1. One error from me – they use the word “substantial” not “severe”.

      It’s predictive reporting (soon it will be changed to retrospective) – so currently scientists say what severity level they think will occur before the experiment – usually erring on the side of more pain to ensure they can’t be told enough for under-reporting (so if you have a license to do a “substantial” experiment, nobody minds if it turns out to be “moderate” but the they would mind if a “moderate” turns out to be “substantial”).

      Here is what the Home Office defines each level as:

      “The unclassified limit applies to protocols performed entirely under general anaesthesia from which the animal does not recover consciousness. This includes the preparation and use of decerebrated animals.

      The mild limit applies to protocols where only minor or transient welfare problems are expected. Many mild protocols involve no more than dosing by injection and blood sampling. A severity limit of mild may be appropriate if procedures which may be more severe are stopped, or effective controls are provided, before the animal suffers more than minor adverse effects.

      The moderate severity limit includes those protocols where it is accepted that animals may experience a noticeable degree of pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm even when appropriate care and attention is provided.

      The substantial severity limit includes those protocols which may cause a major departure from the animal’s usual state of health or well-being with significant or prolonged animal suffering. For example, this would include animal models producing the full, uncontrolled, clinical signs associated with Parkinson’s disease, some vaccine challenge studies where serious clinical disease may result and major surgery.”

  4. Somebody tried to tell me once that animals could actually get quite ill in labs when given certain diseases or that sometimes people decide to put them down because they are suffering too much. It didn’t sound very nice. I even remember seeing one anti-viv pamphlet which claimed that death is sometimes ‘required’ as part of an experiment (like when testing the certain chemicals) and, that scientists sometimes try to make animals depressed or scared or give them stuff like cocaine, to find out more about how our brains work. Im really pleased none of that happens anymore!! :-) If people only knew that animals just experience ‘temporary discomfort’ – I agree we need to do more to tell them so, like me, they all stop worrying. Thanks for highlighting this Speaking of Research, great job.

    1. Most animals will still be put down at the end of the experiment so that researchers can understand more about what is going on inside the animals. However the methods used are quick and painless to avoid further suffering.

      3% of research is considered as severe suffering – though, as mentioned, this is likely to fall with the retrospective reporting. Nonetheless the majority is little more than breeding experiments and blood draws.

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