Basel Releases conference papers on Openness and Transparency

On February 14-15th 2018, scientists, veterinarians, communications staff and administrators from Europe and North America gathered in San Francisco to discuss “Openness and Transparency: Building Trust in Animal Research” at the 5th Annual Conference of the Basel Declaration Society (BDS). We wrote about the first day’s events in a previous post.

The outcomes of this meeting included four policy papers, which were released by the Basel Declaration Society this week, but first discussed on Day 2 of the Basel Declaration Conference.

Openness and Transparency in Animal Research (Policy Paper 1)

This session was led by Speaking of Research members, Allyson Bennett (also University of Wisconsin) and Paula Clifford (also Americans for Medical Progress). The policy paper noted that while there are some excellent outreach efforts in the US, these efforts are uneven across institutions. The policy paper called for the development of a “US Animal Research Openness Agreement”, along similar lines of the UK’s “Concordat on Openness on Animal Research”. This calls for a collaboration of US institutions to come together and make an agreement based on the following principles (which closely resemble the first three Concordat pledges):

  • We will continue to enhance our communications about our research that uses animals.
  • We will be clear about how, why, and under what circumstances we use animals in research.
  • We will proactively provide opportunities for the public to learn about research with animals.

It was agreed that participants would try and form a working group made up of a diverse group of potential signatories. From there a draft of the agreement could be formalised.

The U.S. Openness Agreement will affirm that its signatories will work towards a meaningful public dialogue concerning animal research through practical steps and measurable objectives. We believe a shared agreement can be formed across U.S. institutions to engage in proactive and reactive communications about all aspects of research.

Outreach to Students and General Public (Policy Paper 2)

This session was led by Richard Bianco (Basel Declaration Society) and Rhonda Wiler (Genentech) with the aim of coming up with new ways of communicating to students and general public. Important steps included getting institutional buy-in for internal and external communication, reaching out to science teachers, science fairs and other educational events and programmes, and working with third parties such as AALAS, AMP and NABR.

The policy group discussion talked of the need for a repository for ideas and an easy way of sharing resources. In the end they came up with three commitments about transparency:

  • Talk to administrators about what we learned and the importance of openness and transparency and be persistent.
  • As individuals we commit to interact with relevant audiences and continue making small steps towards openness and transparency in the use of animals in research.
  • We commit to reporting our successes and challenges back to the group.

Online Communication and Social Networks (Policy Paper 3)

This session was run by Tom Holder (Speaking of Research) and Dario Padovan (Pro-Test Italia). All participants were asked to look at a number of animal research webpages from a number of institutions, and say what they liked and didn’t like. The exercise was used to tease out and discuss the components of a good website described in the policy paper (see examples of good websites here). The group came up with a vision for animal research communication online:

We believe that every institution should have a clear statement that explains how and why animals are used in research. This statement would embody the spirit in which animal research is conducted at that institution. This would both set the tone for members of the public looking for information, but also provide a powerful statement in support of all staff involved directly or indirectly in animal research and care at the institution.

They then came up with a set of recommendations – similar to those Speaking of Research has set out before.

  1. Produce an easy-to-find statement on animal research on your website explaining, how and why animals are used in research, and the conditions that must be met before research is approved. To support institutions in developing this, the group came up with possible sentence starters for a statement.
  2. Provide basic information about an institution’s animal research – the type of information often looked for by the public and media. This might include details of animal care, the ethical review process, examples of past research, statistics on animal use, and information about the regulations. The group noted that many misconceptions exist about animal research, and the information provided should implicitly aim to address common concerns (e.g. when might non-animal methods be used, who is responsible for animal care?)
  3. Provide greater information about an institution’s animal research – this might include clear mentions of animals in news and press releases, animal images and videos from the institution’s labs, mentioning animals in social media, and more.

The policy paper recommends creating a stakeholder group including senior administrations, communications experts, senior scientists and an institutions legal and security departments. This can help head off many of the barriers to action.

An example of a University address common misconceptions on their website.

Transparency and the 3Rs (
Policy Paper 4)

This workshop was led by Mary Ann Vasbinder (NA3RColl) and Natalie A. Bratcher (ABBVIE). Their policy paper started with a clear position statement, including:

While the 3Rs framework should not be used in lieu of addressing the moral questions associated with the use of animals in research, it is a tool that, when complemented by the added principles of scientific rigor, reproducibility and responsibility, greatly improves many practical issues around the care, use and welfare of laboratory animals.

They outlines some challenges for the 3Rs and their proliferation including the lack of resources or institutional commitment; identifying scientists who could lead on the development of 3R technologies; cultural differences between countries on the approach to the 3Rs; framing the 3Rs in communication and more. The papers finishes, noting, “To maximize the impact of 3Rs implementation, we must be creative, embrace a collaborative approach, and set an aligned 3Rs vision and strategy to addressing the common challenges”.

Final Session of the Conference

After workshop leaders delivered their policy paper drafts (now complete and on the website), there were three remaining speakers.

Dr Eric Sandgren (UW Madison) discussed the challenges associated with informing your own students. He conducted a survey of undergraduates and faculty at his university, asking them about their views on animal research.  In his analysis he found that students trusted UW courses and spokespeople for their information, but were much less likely to hear anything about animal research from them (compared with faculty). Students were also much more likely to receive information from social media (though they were sceptical of the truth it contained). His conclusion was that the University community strongly favoured increased openness in its animal research communication, but would the university hear this message?

This led well on to the talk by Ken Gordon (Northwest Association for Biomedical Research) about how to build trust with millennials. After laying out the difference between the Great Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millenials he looked at their support for animal research. His stark conclusion was that the US is soon heading for a situation where more people oppose animal research than support it, noting that in other areas (gay marriage and interracial marriage) this type of crossover point led to changes in the law. Looking at the question of secrecy in animal research, Ken posed an interesting anecdote – imagine you were interviewing two identical job candidates, and you asked them: “Is everything on your CV true”. One answers “There are some lies on my CV”, the second answers “I do not want to disclose that information”, who do you hire? Around the room most agreed the first, counterintuitively, felt more honest. The moral of this tale is that we need to be more open – even when that involves saying the negative aspects of animal research – because people will trust the information more. He finished his talk urging institutions to train their scientists to speak to the public.

Finally, Leland S. Shapiro (AMP) gave a heart warming speech about how animal research had helped save his life. From being told by doctors he had seven days to live due to a brain tumour, he talked the audience through his journey of diagnosis, treatment and recovery – with animal research featuring throughout. His surgeon, Dr Keith Black, had conducted animal research and had practiced the techniques he used on Leland on animals. It is the type of tale that needs to be told more to the public, particularly by someone as passionate and animated at Leland.

Speaking of Research