Elephants in the room:  Openness in public vs private research facilities in the US

March 30, 2022
Allyson J. Bennett & Sangy Panicker

Openness and transparency in animal research are perennial topics of discussion (ex:  here, here, here). The terms remain poorly defined. Nonetheless, they are often used both by those opposed to animal research and by advocates for animal research. The terms are used for both praise and criticism of the amount of information that is (or is not) made publicly available. As we have previously written, there is no single approach to systems for sharing information about animal research. This is especially true when considering the diversity of countries where animal research occurs and the range of societal norms upon which various legal frameworks are based.

From a US perspective, however, and particularly a public university perspective, it is clear from experience and basic knowledge of US law that US public research facilities are leaders in degree of openness. This is not left to chance or variability across institutions. Rather, a basic level of transparency is ensured via the US system for public funding of research and regulatory oversight by federal agencies and research institutions, in combination with the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and state-level open meetings and records statutes. As a result, any interested stakeholder– in the US and other countries– can obtain detailed information about animal research conducted at US public institutions, including federal institutions with research facilities.  

The table below highlights key features of the US approach to openness and transparency. It also provides a very basic comparison of differences between publicly-funded research and research or testing by private industry with private funding. The sheer amount of information available to interested stakeholders may not be fully appreciated by those unfamiliar with US policy. What is clear is that many elements of the US system are imitated in other countries’ efforts to develop new guidelines and share more detailed information about animal research. 

We at Speaking of Research encourage readers to make their own comparisons. We also urge those advocating for openness and transparency initiatives to start with this basic descriptive account. The table below highlights current strengths, but also the wide disparity between public and private research entities. As such it can identify targets for action to level the field and address the goals openness advocates seek to achieve.  

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Who benefits from US systems for open information?

There are many who benefit from openness at public research facilities in the US. The beneficiaries include scientists, other scholars, members of the public, media, and policymakers. And it also includes individuals and groups who seek to end the use of animals in research and testing and exploit publicly available information to misrepresent the facts and stall research efforts. We urge readers to consider the different ways that information is used. Some of those uses can increase understanding of animal research and contribute to serious consideration of practices, policies, and societal decisions. Other uses of the information can contribute to misrepresentation and incomplete knowledge about animal research and testing, as well as deliberate mischaracterization in service of political objectives.

Consideration of each of these outcomes underscores the simple fact that freely-available information is not synonymous with increased understanding of a complex topic. We offer the observation as food for thought about the consequences of unevenness of information available on research for public and private entities. And, in turn, perhaps a more careful consideration about the difference between providing information and building understanding of why, when, where, and how animal research is conducted for societal benefit.