What makes a good animal research statement?

Recently we created a list (still in progress) of the public facing statements institutions have on their website about their animal research. The quality of these statements and associated web pages are of mixed quality. In the second half of this post we assess ten top life science universities (according to the THE World Ranking) for how well they explain animal research on their websites.

In the UK, we ranked 13 out of 56 listed institutions as having exemplary pages relating to their animal research. In the US only 2 of the 47 could be considered exemplary. We lack enough statements from other countries to be able to draw any conclusions from there.

Many British institutions have recently updated their pages on animal research as part of their commitment to the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research in the UK. So far in the UK, 85 organisations “involved with life science in the UK” have become signatories to the Concordat. Signatories pledged to:

Commitment 2:

We will enhance our communications with the media and the public about our research using animals

  • Within one year of signing up to the Concordat we will make a policy statement about the use of animals in research available via our websites, to provide clear information about the nature of our own involvement with animal research and its role in the wider context of our research aims…

British and American institutions can learn a lot from some of the best practices of the most open organisations. Below we provide six suggestions for improving a website.

Step 1: Have a statement about animal research!

This one seems obvious, but many institutions fail at this most basic hurdle. Of the Top 10 Universities in the World for Life Sciences (according to Times Higher Education 2014-15), MIT (Massachuetts Institute of Technology) either do not have any statement explaining that they do animal research and why, or have hidden it so well on their website that it may as well not exist.

A statement should provide some indication of why there are animal experiments being conducted at the university. It should be written in a style which is suitable for consumption by the general public (many institutions place a short statement on animal research on their IACUC page, which is not intended for the public).

Step 2: Provide additional information about why and how animal research is conducted

A good statement should not only inform the public that an institution conducts animal research and why, it should provide an indication of what animal research is conducted and the welfare considerations and tight regulations involved. For example, the University of Cambridge (#3 for Life Sciences) explains that animal research has been and continues to be important for developing treatments, that it is only done where there is no alternative, that it is strictly regulated with welfare being a high priority and when it is done. This is before you read any of the accompanying pages (including an FAQ, case studies of current animal research at Cambridge, their policies etc.). Cambridge University’s statement on animal research begins with this:

Research using animals has made, and continues to make, a vital contribution to the understanding, treatment and cure of major human and animal health problems; including cancer, heart disease, polio, diabetes and neurological diseases and disorders. While new methods have enabled scientists and medical researchers to reduce studies involving animals, some work must continue for further fundamental advances to be made.

The University of Cambridge only uses animals in research where there are no alternatives. In fact, the law demands that where a non-animal approach exists, it should be used. The principles of reduction, refinement and replacement of animals in research (the ’3Rs’) underpin all related work carried out at the University; ensuring that the number of animals used is minimised and that procedures, care routines and husbandry are refined and regularly reviewed to maximise welfare.

To support your information, include a link to other websites which provide information on animal research. Perhaps add the following:

For more information about the role of animals in research we recommend the following resources:

Step 3: Make the statement page easy to find

There is no point creating a lovely set of resources about your animal research is no one can find it. There are three main ways people look for this information. The first is to Google phrases like “<institution> animal research” or “<institution> animal testing” or “<institution> animal experiments”. The desired page should really be first or second on the Google list if it intends to be read. The second way people search is the search bar on the institution’s website, and the third method is to try and browse through the menu system on  a University’s main page. Consider the ease with which people can find across all three.

Below looks at what position on Google their animal research statement comes when googling the following phrases (a dash means they were not in the top 8 search results)

 Institution <institution> animal research <institution> animal testing <institution> animal experiments
Harvard 2
MIT
Cambridge 1 1 1
Oxford 1 1 1
Stanford 1 3 2
CalTech 1 1 1
Yale 1 1 1
Princeton 1 1 2
Johns Hopkins 2 5 4
Imperial 1 1 1

While six of the universities rank 1st for at least two of the phrases, the top two institutions – MIT and Harvard – fail to rank for most phrases on Google.

Step 4: Provide case studies which explain an institution’s animal research

Case studies are a great way of helping members of the public understand why animal research is done at a university. Case studies allow the public to better understand how the use of animals fits into the research process.

If a newspaper picks up a story (perhaps sent by an animal rights group) about an institution’s animal research, it can be helpful if a journalist can find examples of the types of research and research areas that a research facility is engaged in.

Of our top 10 Life Science universities, only Cambridge and Oxford universities provided Case Studies.

Step 5: Provide statistics on the use of animals in research

Numbers are not everything – they do not contextualise the size of an institution’s biomedical research department relative to other universities – they do not tell you how much work is being done using alternative methods – they can mislead people if one experiment, one year, happens to require a lot more animals BUT if you don’t publish them, someone else will – and you can be damn sure there will be even less context.

Freedom of Information laws in both the US and UK can allow animal rights groups to force the numbers out of institutions, and then use it for a press release condemning the university. However, newspapers are far less likely to run with the story if those statistics are available clearly on the website – it becomes less of an exclusive, and more of a non-story of “animal rights group emails readily available statistics on a website to a newspaper”. All responses to number-related enquiries should then simply direct people to the section of the website that hold them.

Good statistical information will include a breakdown of the number of animals by species, preferably including information on the use of non-AWA covered species such as mice, rats and even fish.

The UK institutions again come up trumps, with all three of its institutions on the top 10 providing some statistics. Cambridge provides its 2013 statistics alongside an explanation of why animal use is rising. Imperial College provide information on the number of animals used in both 2012 and 2013 including all vertebrate species. Oxford only provides information on the number of primates held, and the number undergoing procedures. This probably reflects a long time media interest in primate research at Oxford.

Step 6: Provide images and/or videos showing your animal facility

The best images include animals, but any image that can help dispel the idea of a blood-spattered basement with maniacal scientists is a step in the right direction.

Oxford are the only institution in the top 10 which provides any pictures, but let’s face it, it’s better having this:

Oxford University animal research

Than letting people think it looks like this:

PETA's MMA game depiction of animal research.

PETA’s MMA game depiction of animal research.

So all said and done, how do our top ten universities stack up on our six steps?

Institution Statement? More Info? Google? Case Studies? Statistics? Images / Videos?
Harvard
MIT
Cambridge
Oxford
Stanford
CalTech
Yale
Princeton
John Hopkins
Imperial

Communication on animal research is still new to many institutions,and we believe the website is a great place to start. Here we provide six steps to help universities provide more information to the public.

We encourage institutions to add a link to Speaking of Research so that the public can be better informed about why we need animals to help  medical, veterinary and scientific progress continue.

Speaking of Research

3 responses to “What makes a good animal research statement?

  1. Pingback: Does your institution talk about its animal research? | Speaking of Research

  2. Pingback: The Science Communication Gap | Speaking of Research

  3. Reblogged this on Excellence In Animal Science and commented:
    I wanted to share this article because I feel it is my responsibility as a laboratory animal care taker to help inform the public about animal research and show the benefits that come from our discoveries.

    I hope other animal facilities can use this article to create meaningful and informational websites to promote their facilities and animal research in general.