Openness about animal research – whose responsibility?

On June 21st, the Transparency Agreement on Animal Research was launced in Portugal. The presently 16 signatories of the Portuguese Transparency Agreement agree to:

  • Have a statement concerning animal welfare on the Institution’s website.
  • Link to the Transparency Agreement.
  • Provide adequate information to the media and the general public on the conditions under which animal research is carried out and the results achieved.
  • Develop initiatives that promote greater knowledge and understanding of society on the use of animals in scientific research.
  • Report progress made every year and share experiences.

With this move, Portugal becomes the fourth European country with a formal agreement to communicate more openly about animal research, after the UK, Belgium and Spain. This is a welcome initiative and if it is successful, which I hope, we will move towards a climate of discussion where scientists can speak openly about the fact that they use animals in biomedical as well as fundamental research.

But what this implies in terms of roles and responsibilities is not obvious. That it means that we need to talk about how animals are treated is obvious to me as a researcher in laboratory animal welfare and a professional engaged in a number of institutional measures to promote a responsible use of animals in research, such as review of projects with animals and organization of training for researchers in laboratory animal science. And I’m happy to take on my responsibility in communication and talk about these matters. In fact, I already do this. Whenever asked by media, I comment, I have during nearly a decade regularly written about the issue on the blog Animalogos and I have also written opinion papers in leading newspapers.

When looking up the latter link, to an opionion paper published three years ago together with three colleagues, I realise that we opened with an argument that I personally really don’t think is mine: the usefulness of animal research. Not because I don’t believe that research with animals can provide useful understanding of biological mechanisms, but because I think that this is a message which should be communicated by those who use animals in research to provide such understanding. This is the responsibility of my colleagues who do research in neuroscience, biomaterials, immunology and infection, cell division and cancer.

And here is a real challenge for the official promotors of the inititive, in Portugal the national laboratory animal science organization SPCAL. This organization mainly brings together professionals who are involved in caring for animals and providing advice to researchers using animals. These professionals already take a huge responsibility in working for more responsible research with animals – it is not fair to also give them the responsiblity of communicating why this research is important!

 

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