International collaborations can both maintain animal welfare standards and advance science

March 10th 2021
Anna Mitchell, PhD, Michele A. Basso PhD and Renée Hartig PhD

Please note that this article is published within a series of Speaking of Research posts to come that incorporate the range of viewpoints and perspectives on international regulations and collaborations between animal researchers.

In the midst of an ongoing pandemic, there has never been a greater period in our lifetime to promote science globally. While it might seem paradoxical that international scientific work proceeds, considering global travel is restricted, many scientists remain active across the continents, working day-by-day to chip at pressing problems and the unknown frontiers of science. The success of both basic and clinical research pursuits is supported by such global efforts. Notably, in both basic and clinical research, animals have also played an integral part. A testament to that is the essential role of animals in developing not just one, but several vaccines for COVID-19 (see here). Now, at a time when non-human primate species are in high demand, but short supply (NY Times), we face a reminder of how critical animals are not only for scientific advances but also to the international community.

While collaborations on a global scale often face immense logistical hurdles, once established they can prove expedient and rewarding for the world. We must overcome the restrictions of legal and regional constraints in order to mitigate international barriers and build synergistic relations between nations. In terms of scientific collaborations, the impact of working synergistically across the globe can have massive incentives for public health and scientific innovation. A plethora of existing biomedical challenges places great stakes in scientific advances. Advances that can improve the livelihood of both humans and animals.

A recent NeuroImage article reported on the major obstacles hindering international scientific collaborations involving animal research. Using the field of neuroscience as an example, the article’s authors discuss some of the national, legal, ethical, and cultural differences and similarities between countries in the West, such as France, the UK, and the US, and countries in the East, such as China. While China, along with Japan and South Korea, provide a major representation of scientific output from the region, China does draw attention for its accelerating growth and economy, which includes the potential for research advancement and development.

Redrawn from Source: Original caption reads “Data are for the top eight R&D-performing countries and the EU. Data are not available for all countries for all years. Data for the United States in this figure reflect international standards for calculating gross expenditures on R&D, which vary slightly from the National Science Foundation’s protocol for tallying U.S. total R&D. Data for Germany for 1981–90 are for West Germany.”
**EU = European Union; PPP = purchasing power parity.

The recent article compared legal protocols and welfare standards amongst different countries conducting non-human primate (NHP) research; whereby, an effort was undertaken to understand the common standards required to share data collected in NHPs now and in the future. The article’s comparative examination of welfare and care standards can help provide a basis for establishing a common set of standards for animal welfare. The idea here is to apply the information reflecting the standards and welfare of animal research in different countries to conform to a set of common requirements necessary to effectively conduct this line of research internationally, whilst providing an adequate level of quality and care, ensuring the best possible livelihood of the animals involved. In this framework, it is not so much the matter of which country does it best, rather, it is promoting the use of empirical data from studies actually assessing animal welfare and well-being to inform the necessary standards, what is called an ‘evidence-based’ approach. A few examples of scientific reports testing potential refinements include the development of protective head caps for macaque monkeys that promote wound recovery (Perry et al., 2020) and the development of less invasive procedures (Slater et al., 2016; Pigarev et al., 2009). Only by examining the data can an objective conclusion be drawn about whether a potential refinement in procedures will be useful for animal welfare and advancing science; this type of evidence-based approach is also critical for establishing a common foothold of cooperation amongst countries, a mutual link to the shared goal of progress.

The article also writes that “these criteria may serve to develop international guidelines, which can be managed by an International Animal Welfare and Use Committee (IAWUC).” The proposed IAWUC speaks to promoting international collaborations by facilitating the aggregation and dissemination of vital information needed to inform an agreed upon international standard. The envisioned IAWUC does not yet exist, but this is an important idea that could ensure that welfare standards increase if there are shortcomings in places. Nobody wants another layer of red tape, but otherwise it falls on the local bodies to make case-by-case decisions. A key disadvantage of local regulatory bodies deciding on international collaborations is that they will not have the broader view that an IAWUC would have on international regulations. The IAWUC can take note of discrepancies between regional, local, and institutional policies to first derive what already are the shared policies and to identify the limitations for successful collaborations. There is certainly potential for this international committee and, as we look forward, the community can aspire to reach a level of agreement where collaborations are not only facilitated but also an asset to managing global problems.


Global collaboration boom, not bust

As with anything on a global scale, there are a variety of factors that play together. Here, they include the intertwining of cultural, societal, ethical, and scientific values. The complexity of finding common ground is obvious, however, not impossible. Facing this reality, we can at least acknowledge how far science has already come. Scientists and scientific organizations have been generators of policy change for years. Science itself has generated a great deal of knowledge about living beings and the world around, so much so that findings have continued to inform and shape ethical considerations and practices. The question then arises, where do we go from here?

We need to identify a set of common standards, being sensitive to the autonomy, societal positions, and resources of different nations. International context and empirical data can work to inform agreeable standards. This is not to say that there will be no compromise. Actually, compromises are expected, similar to how compromises are the fruit of all labor in international policy. A 2016 publication proposing a framework for broad consideration of ethical use and treatment of captive animals (i.e., chimpanzees) across settings, further underscores that this is not a new issue for science or international policy. However, by taking transparent and fact-based discussions even the most complex issues can be tackled – diplomatic scientific relations, if you will.

It has sometimes been conveyed that Western standards are the gold standard that other countries should aspire to attain, but what is missing from that perspective is (a) the resources and (b) a comparative examination of regulatory and research approval processes of different nations. Naturally, developing countries may not have a financial means to construct infrastructure to house animals as per the guidelines of the European Union, for example, but they could be assisted as part of an international collaboration during IAWUC consideration. An international committee, such as the IAWUC, should also help elevate developing nations in its efforts to promote accessibility to science while questioning whether the costs allocated by wealthy nations are indeed better for animal welfare. It is not always the case that costs directly relate to better care for research animals.

Furthermore, it is not about which country has the best policies for animal use and care, it is what is best for the livelihood of animals and humans, health and scientific progress, which an evidence-based approach considers. We should support the principle that any standard be vetted and evidence-based, with clearly articulated rationale. Overall, we can help to avoid the exodus of research from countries that are under too much regulatory burden, have insufficient investment in infrastructure, and/or have created standards that raise costs so much it is untenable to do the work (e.g., financial costs, public relations and risk costs). We can do this by setting a reasonable standard.

Working with animals, working together

When promoting international relations and collaborations, the importance of community engagement cannot be understated. Engagement is required not only on behalf of the scientists, regulators, and policy makers but also by the public, by society. Often, public communication and engagement falls outside the scope of academic responsibilities, yet it is a service not only to science but also to members of the public when the discussions are continued.

“When working with animal models, maintaining a high quality of care (“culture of care”) and welfare is essential. The transparent promotion of this level of care and welfare, along with the results of the research and its impact, may reduce public concerns associated with animal experiments in neuroscience research (Mitchell et al., 2021).”

Mitchell and colleagues included a section in their article discussing a means and an outlet for public engagement. Additionally, the article mentions how organizations, such as Speaking of Research, an independent committee of individuals who volunteer their time to write articles about science for the public, provide an essential outlet for public engagement. Driving home information in the light of day highlights how the global community can together engage in reflection. Through dissemination of scientific reports, and by means of collaboration, we can establish an appropriate ethical approach to conducting research. Information is power, and by that, it is only encouraged that readers explore their interest in science by approaching some of the original scientific reports, acknowledging the statements of ethical policies and the ethical and legal approvals warranted for different scientific studies.