Poor Understanding = Poor Policy. Getting it Right on Animal Research
In my younger days I was torn between policy and science, since I had the grades and enthusiasm for both, but the system is such that one must choose, so I wrestled with the problem, still couldn't decide, took PPE and subscribed to the New Scientist.
Not long into my studies I remember being struck during one lesson by just how much the classical philosophers, whose work we were discussing, had got their explanations for the world so very wrong as a result of predating modern scientific knowledge. At that moment I had a very important insight: you can't formulate decent philosophy, let alone workable policy, if you don't understand how things work.
And so to animal research: the thing that nobody likes to think about and, therefore, doesn't know much about which makes it very vulnerable to misrepresentation. Worse still, individuals may have fallen prey to the numerous misrepresentations of the 'anti-vivisection' movement, which has for its history maintained that animal experiments would amount to nothing. Such individuals think that '9 out of 10 drugs that pass animal tests fail in humans' (a misconception) and believe you can model whole-body systems using cell cultures and computer models (you can't).
Still others attempt to build a case that animal research doesn't tell us much about human biology using, variously, cherry-picked examples of times that it wasn't very useful, claims that metabolic pathways as well as disease are unique to each species, and even custom pseudoscience, employing inappropriate formulae or single-digit sample sizes . Animal research cannot work, some claim, because 'we are not giant mice'.
All of this is very familiar to every misrepresented area of science, from anti-vaxxers to the gentleman who thought a quasar would engulf the planet if the Large Hadron Colider were to be turned on. The fact is, animals are, whilst not a panacea, tremendously useful in science and their role in medical history is not in doubt. This year is the 95th anniversary of the administration of insulin to control diabetes, a discovery which used a dozen dogs before saving millions of human and animal lives. It is no coincidence that 94 of the 106 Nobel prizes awarded for physiology or medicine were for research that depended upon animals. Like the concept of evolution, the efficacy of animal models isn't 'proved' by a single scientific paper, but by a tapestry of thousands.
So, what do we need to know?
Well, firstly we need to set the scene to remove any lingering preconceptions. For instance, it's illegal to use an animal if there's an alternative way to conduct an experiment and this has been the case since 1986. Tobacco research is also banned, so no smoking beagles – especially not since Labour made it illegal in 1997.
Here are some more:
Cosmetics aren't tested on animals, and nor are their ingredients, nor can they be imported if either have. When Lush Cosmetics talks about 'fighting animal testing', it isn't talking about cosmetics testing;
98% of research animals are mice, rats, fish and birds (mostly mice);
Over half of experiments are the breeding of genetically altered animals (mainly mice again) which aren't subjected to further 'procedures';
Dogs and primates are a fraction of 1% of the total of animals used;
Chimps and gorillas aren't used in UK research. No Great Apes are;
If you want to use an animal you need three licences – one for you, one for the experiment and one for your institution/facilities. Your experiment has to be passed by an ethics committee, which usually includes animal welfare representatives, and its decision informs the final view of the Home Office. There has to be a credible chance some scientific gain will come from the experiment;
There's been an inspectorate of animal labs since 1876, which kept up its inspection regime throughout both World Wars;
Only about 13% of animal research is testing anything. Most of the rest is basic research i.e. investigating how biological systems work so we’re in a position to treat or prevent disease;
Most research is undertaken by public sector organisations like universities, medical schools, NHS hospitals, and public health bodies;
Most cats used in the UK (only about 100) are used for veterinary research into things like cat vaccines and diets;
That's nice. What about policy?
It's precisely by not understanding the above facts that political parties have devised duff policy in the past. The Coalition pledged to reduce the number of animals used in experiments, until it realised that ‘reduce’ is an esoteric technical term which made its proposed actions look like a u-turn. Election 2015 saw the Green Party pledge to abolish veterinary experiments, whilst UKIP confusingly vowed to implement the existing system if elected.
As unnecessarily embarrassing as all of that is, actually, decent policy isn't all that complicated to formulate. Whether you're an enthusiastic supporter of science, a reluctant supporter of necessary research or want to see animal research banned tomorrow, the same policy response presents itself as the only sensible way forward.
Research is increasingly international. Research funding comes from all over, collaborations between different countries' scientists are common and increasing. Work not undertaken in one place simply shifts to another. For this reason, banning experiments, say on dogs, doesn't prevent the experiment so much as relocate it to a competing research hub, potentially to one which lacks the UK's unusually high standards of lab animal welfare – an own goal for science, business and animal welfare in one fell swoop.
However, as we've already established, it's illegal to use an animal if there's an alternative method, and this non-animal method is also likely to be cheaper and certainly less bureaucratic, so the obvious thing to do is increase the number of alternatives available.
The UK already does this to an extent through the National Centre for the 3Rs (Reducing the number of animals used, Replacing them where possible and Refining experiments to reduce or remove suffering), which has pumped more than £40million into 3Rs and alternatives research.
However there are additional benefits beyond 3Rs objectives alone. Firstly, the UK is a significant exporter of biotech, with £1.6 billion of annual exports offsetting 4% of the UK's trade deficit. New alternatives become an exportable commodity.
These could also replace animals not used in UK experiments, but used outside the UK. An example might be safety-testing of US cosmetics. The EU bans more than 1,300 potentially harmful chemicals from cosmetics that the US permits and simply tests the finished product on an animal before taking it to market. Mexico, with which the UK will seek to expand trade post-Brexit, has banned only 126.
There is also a brace of obvious economic reasons that it’s better for the UK that bioscience happens here - millions in inward investment, tens of thousands of academic jobs. The pharmaceutical industry alone invested $1.3 Trillion in R&D worldwide in the decade to 2015 – how much of that would we be chasing away if we banned the mainstay of preclinical research?
Alongside this there’s more obscure research from BIS (as it was called) which concludes:
It would be a mistake to conclude … that the UK could derive greater economic benefit by creating less new knowledge itself and relying more on exploiting knowledge created overseas. Domestic research generates a hugely important by-product in the form of absorptive capacity: the ability of businesses and researchers to exploit cutting-edge research carried out elsewhere…... If we move away from the frontiers of knowledge creation, it is highly likely that our best researchers will go elsewhere, the world’s talent will not come here, and consequently we will lose our ability to make the most of knowledge created elsewhere. This would make us significantly less attractive to inward investors.
There isn’t a world government, so experiments can’t and won’t be banned tomorrow even if we wanted to and most people don’t want to. We need a real-world policy response based on facts not narratives. The only coherent way forward which supports science, industry and animal welfare is therefore to bring unavoidable experiments under the UK's high lab animal welfare regulations rather than letting them drift abroad, while leading the way in developing alternatives to animals in the UK and abroad by developing and exporting the next generation of biotech animal replacements.