Being open about animal research

Today is Being Open about Animal Research Day, #BOARD21. If I can pretend to speak on behalf of my institution, this is what I would say about us. This is what I’m trying to act in line with.

We do research with animals. We also develop non-animal models for biomedical research. Transparency means talking about both, in a way that is as unbiased and as honest as possible.

I’m not a typical researcher using animal models, and my way of being open about animal research will be particular for my own professional self and context.

I’m an animal welfare scientist in a biomedical research institution, i3s – Instituto de Investigação e Inovação em Saúde. I have worked in this organization for 20 years, I have learned a lot, unlearned some, and hopefully achieved one thing or another in terms of institutional culture, practice and infrastructure.

My greatest passion in the field is the research we develop to improve animal welfare, and in particular our research into survival of laboratory mouse pups. This is the topic I have worked on for the longest time, and it has brought fantastic collaborations with great colleagues and outstanding research institutions. At the point where we are now, I’m also believing our research finding can bring about change.

But changing the world through research is a very slow process. Training is much more impactful – or at least so I hope, since this is the other main part of my work. My institution has hosted a training course in laboratory animal science for researchers working with animals since 2005. It makes a huge difference for the mindset and for the standard that everyone who works with animals has been extensively trained to do so. It helps to create a spiral effect where knowledgeable researchers demand high quality support from the animal facility – and the animal facility can set high standards for how animals are treated in research. For us, adhering to international accreditation schemes – FELASA for our training course, AAALAC-International for the animal care and use program as a whole – has been crucial to keep up the quality and to improve.

Institutional measures to promote quality in research with animals are important. The same is true for quality in animal care. Working with international accreditation schemes (FELASA, AAALAC) help us to keep up the quality and improve.

But there is a lot more we can do.

I would like to know that all researchers when planning their research think carefully about what the right model is to address their research questions. And that they get support in this – that they are challenged to think, that they have experts to “think together” with, and that they get expert support in implementing the models. This should be the case for both animal and non-animal models.

I have a vision for how to achieve this within my own institution. To get the entire research community to think this way is beyond my reach, but of course it’s an important ideal.

In the meantime, I wish for all of us to be honest about what we do and what we can achieve. There are problems in practice with animal model research and problems with non-animal model research. We should work to prevent and overcome these problems, and not deny that they exist, or act as if they only happen in one type of research. There are limitations of animal models and limitations of non-animal models. If we speak about the limitations of one, we should also speak about the limitations of the other. Selective use of facts is not good practice in science communication. But it’s far too common in the discussion of animal experimentation – on both sides of the debate.

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