Advent, PR-style

The gathering time of year has come round again for signatories to the ‘Concordat on Openness on Animal Research’. In the setting of the Wellcome Collection in London (the medical museum and library “that encourages everyone to reflect on what it means to be human”), it’s a time for mutual congratulation, distributing of awards, chivvying of the less motivated, and general reflection and retrospect. Among the prize-winners this year was Oxford University, sharing the Award for Public Engagement Activity with three other institutions which all now offer ‘digital tours’ of their laboratories (as reviewed in this blog on 28 August). Other awards were given for ‘Media Engagement’, ‘Use of New Media’, and ‘Outstanding Contribution to Openness in Animal Research’, this latter won by Fergus Walsh for his “balanced reporting at a time when ‘animal research’ evoked a knee-jerk response from much of the public and media”. The judges had in mind Fergus Walsh’s “exclusive” BBC tour of Oxford’s new Biomedical Sciences Building early in 2014, much admired at the time by both of the institutions concerned.

That was the year also in which the Concordat itself was officially launched, and its Annual Report for 2017, issued to coincide with the awards ceremony on 4th December, is partly a review of its career since then. Fifty pages or so, but there’s no need to read it to know that there has been a great change. The institutions which sign up to the Concordat (there are now at least 113 of them) are required to ‘show and tell’ on their web-sites, and they do, some of them at considerable length: statements of policy, disquisitions on their commitment to the 3Rs (not always remembering to mention that this is a necessity in law), accounts of research projects, slide shows, and videos of caring technicians and sapient professors. The Report recalls that the Concordat had set out to “change an endemic culture of secrecy around the use of animals that was present in UK life-sciences research” [p.5], and its success in this quite proper purpose is evident. At Oxford, for instance: here, the routine publication of statistics of animal research, including severity levels, in the University Gazette and on the OU web-site, together with a sort of school-year record of open days, 3Rs training courses, and other worthy Laboratory, South Parks Road.JPGinitiatives, makes a striking contrast with the Biomedical Sciences Building itself, planned and built in the old days (about ten years ago) and constituting an assertion of secrecy in concrete and brick: no visible way in, counterfeit windows, railings all round, security cameras.

But is this change anything more than hitching animal research to the already blazing star of modern public relations? Perhaps the Concordat is simply to be understood as one of those “unique hubs of PR excellence all round the country, all powering forward” which PR’s own professional body, the PRCA, has recently acclaimed as moving us all towards “an even larger, even more vibrant, and even more future-proofed PR industry”. Certainly much of what appears on the animal research web-sites is ordinary self-promotion, however judicious-sounding. As the Concordat acknowledges, “It is the role of all organisations and their communications teams to highlight publicly appealing aspects of their work, and to avoid more difficult topics” (a pretty good summary of PR). And even when not merely conforming to this model of communications, what the signatories do and say is necessarily one-way. The Report talks about the “development of public-facing communication tools” [11]; whatever exactly that means, it doesn’t suggest a progressive exchange of views. Even the manipulable digital tours, such as the Oxford one, only make available what the institutions choose to show; you aren’t going to stumble upon anything they didn’t mean you to see. And supposing you can find the way in to the real Oxford building, you won’t be let through the barrier without a very good reason (I know this), let alone be invited to take a look round.

An introductory video about Imperial College London’s animal research makes the situation unexpectedly clear. The Concordat Report specially praises ICL for its web-site, and certainly it’s the only one I’ve seen where animal research is mentioned and linked on the front page. The video itself touches on some of ICL’s “great biomedical research”, and showcases (to use a favourite Concordat word) the cleanness, good order, and superior welfare of its animal-management. But as well as appearing on the web-site, the video is posted on YouTube, and its immediate neighbour there under ‘Imperial animal research’, tagging along like a bad conscience, is a filmed record of squalor, cruelty, and malpractice in that same institution, part of the exposé published in 2013 by the British Union Against Vivisection. “Look here, upon this picture and upon this!” as Hamlet exclaims. Only two years separate the two representations. It’s a bewildering difference.

The Concordat earnestly advises that research should be “presented openly rather than sanitized” [36], with “balanced information, acknowledging harms as well as benefits of animal research” [10]. It admits, however, that to do so constitutes “a challenging area for signatories” [1]. In fact it unwittingly illustrates the point, since it doesn’t follow its own advice to include images of animals “undergoing research” as well as the usual stock pictures of animals enjoying rest or play. The Report does have pictures, but the nearest they come to ‘balancing’ the several at-home pigs and playful rodents is one image of a rat receiving an injection. Likewise, we can feel pretty certain that ICL will never, for all its “sector-leading” communications, showcase the table-guillotine which appears in the BUAV footage, still less the rats which we see undergoing ‘endpoints’ by that and other similar means, with mixed success (“Oh, its eyes are still moving!”, someone exclaims in the film). We must assume that ICL’s standards really have risen since then (all of four years ago), but its PR isn’t how we’ll expect to know one way or the other.

Unfortunately there’s something more to all this than the harmlessly increased clamour of self-advertisement, for corresponding to it is a decline in authentic reporting. It’s a quite reasonable principle of PR to get your client’s story in first, and leave as little as possible for more impartial commentators to make a story out of. You aim to sap their professional scope and interest. Thus, the opportunities for a journalist to base a story on things found out about animal research, perhaps merely through Freedom of Information requests, and then to quiz the practitioners and thereby keep the subject stirred, are now very much harder to come by. The information is already public, in ready-to-consume form, with follow-up comment prepared by experts (the institutions’ own “media-trained champions”, as the Report calls them). Investigations are still possible, of course, and needed, but they will demand more in time, motive, and initiative. The consequence is noted with satisfaction in the Report: “The accessibility of information about the use of animals in research has notably reduced media interest in this subject over the past three years … there have been only a handful of significant stories … Animal research per se is a non-story.” [37, 46]

It’s not just a problem in animal research, of course. That 2016 census conducted by the Public Relations Consultants Association (from which the quotation about “hubs of PR excellence” is gratefully taken) assessed the number of people working in its profession at 83,000 and bullishly rising. The equivalent number for journalism is about 64,000. Commenting on these numbers in the Guardian newspaper at the time, Roy Greenslade (a professor of Journalism) called it a “disproportionate ratio”, one which has ominous implications for public awareness in the future.

In the case of the Concordat project, this pre-empting of media curiosity and critical supervision has been achieved without any necessary alteration in the ethics or practice of animal research. But perhaps it does nevertheless entail or at least promote improvement there? I think that there are two things to say about that.

The first is that, yes, there must surely be some positive effect on animal welfare. The films may only show scenes chosen for their tonic effect, but such scenes, and the reassurances which are voiced over them, must set a noticeable standard within an institution and beyond, promoting what the Report calls “understanding of what represents current best practice” [37]. Then, because the animal care staff always co-star in these shows with the research side, the increased attention must boost the status of their contribution, to the benefit of the animals who depend on it. In fact this effect is mentioned in the Report [6].

But the second point is that an equivalent boost must be profiting animal research in general, and the departments and people that do it. Signatories are quoted in the Report as saying that the Concordat has “created increased awareness of animal research, and given it profile and standing” [45]. Profile and standing in whose eyes is not specified: perhaps only in the eyes of funding managers or other science departments, but that alone will have an important bearing on the growth or decline of animal studies. As to the general public, certainly there’s no confident assertion in the Report that opinion there has yet been affected. But of course that’s the aim. When vivisection was first given official attention, in the Royal Commission of 1875-6, the commissioners noted that “a large and very estimable portion of the public” viewed physiologists and their work with “a feeling of suspicion, and even of abhorrence” [xvii]. Has that ever not been so during the intervening years? The Concordat’s project is to liberate the profession from that odium for the first time, and to do it without ever needing to win the argument or even to continue having it.

Well, there’s more to Advent than the Concordat and its awards, I’m glad to say. And indeed, as a more general contribution to seasonal celebrations and portents, Understanding Animal Research (the promotional agency which runs the Concordat) has posted on Facebook its own Advent calendar. With an Xmas sparkle and jingling, each door opens upon a different animal, with a short account of its ‘contribution’ to research. The doors won’t open ahead of time, so we can’t yet know what will arrive on the 25th, but at least it won’t find itself alone: these days, coming into the world to save mankind is a crowded avocation.


Notes and references:

The digital tours of laboratories are reviewed in this blog at

The Concordat Annual Report can be read at

The Imperial College video is on YouTube at  and the BUAV film, here following a few minutes of a BBC Radio 4 news report on the exposé, is at

The quotation from the PRCA Census 2016 comes from the introduction, p.4. Roy Greenslade’s comments on the rise of PR were published in the Guardian, 10 June 2016, and can be read online here:

The quotation about suspicion and abhorrence comes from Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, HMSO 1876, p.xvii.




Our Ancestors the Fishes

In his brilliant introduction to the study of animal behaviour, King Solomon’s Ring, Konrad Lorenz tells how the male jewel fish (one of the numerous family of cichlid fishes) gathers his offspring together for return to their nesting hole at night: “He does not coax them along [as is the mother’s way] but simply inhales them into his roomy mouth, swims to the nest, and blows them into the hollow.” [37] To make this practice possible, the baby fishes have a reflex contraction of the swim-bladder which makes them un-buoyant at the necessary times. On one occasion, Lorenz was feeding some of these fishes in his aquarium later than usual, and the descent of a piece of worm attracted the father cichlid just as he was collecting a truant baby. Impelled equally by hunger and parenthood, the fish took them both into his mouth:

It was a thrilling moment. The fish had in its mouth two different things of which one must go into his stomach and the other into the nest. What would he do? … At that moment I would not have given twopence for the life of that tiny jewel fish. But wonderful what really happened! The fish stood stock still with full cheeks, but did not chew. If ever I have seen a fish think, it was at that moment! [37]

That last sentence is best understood with the word ‘seen’ in italics: for the whole book is about watching and admiring, and learning thereby, without making or inheriting assumptions about what is possible to other life-forms. Not the thinking so much, then, but the seeing it happen, is the excitement. And from that sort of sustained attention, as Julian Huxley says in his introduction to Lorenz’s book, it emerges that “the behaviour of fish … is certainly much more extraordinary than most people have any idea of.”

That in fact is the theme of the recent popular study of fish zoology by Jonathan Balcombe, What a Fish Knows: the Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins (2016). [I shall come back to Lorenz’s conflicted jewel fish later.] Actually Balcombe’s book is about much more than zoology. Like Lorenz, he insists upon the individual animal. “I felt for that fish” is a typical and (coming at p.5) exemplary statement. The outlook is already there in his title, fixing ‘knowledge’ within the individual rather than in the species or class. And accordingly he uses the word ‘fishes’ for the plural, not the more usual homogenizing collective ‘fish’, “in recognition of the fact that these animals are individuals with personalities and relationships”. (It’s noticeable that the many reviews of the book have conformed to this preference: ‘fishes’ does sometimes sound awkward, but that simply makes the lesson more conscious.) In fact Balcombe distinguishes his book from the “legions of books” about fish biology, ecology, even conservation, to say nothing about the possibly even greater number of books about catching fish (or, to use the miserable ellipsis, ‘fishing’), by presenting What a Fish Knows as a book on behalf of fish” [his italics]. And he dedicates it to “the anonymous trillions”.

That fishes need speaking for is obvious enough. At this early stage of his book, Balcombe merely sketches the frightful depredations to which humans subject them: over a trillion caught for commerce every year; about 47 billion more caught by way of recreation, of which perhaps one third would be killed outright, the rest returned in whatever condition. He leaves the more detailed account to his final chapter ‘Fish out of Water’, coming after the 200 or so intervening pages which have shown the astonishing variety, complexity, sensitivity and beauty of these animals. And the point, again, is not just the wastefulness, ecological havoc, and self-endangering carelessness of this predation, but rather the suffering imposed, because the fishes die as “conscious individuals” and “they do not die nicely”.

The consciousness of fishes, and in particular their ability to feel pain, is still regarded, here and there, as disputable. However, the factuality of it has been well established, at least in the case of one representative species of bony fish (i.e. belonging to the majority order teleosts, the other main order being the cartilaginous fishes or chondrichthyans). The species was the rainbow trout, the subject of a series of studies carried out in Edinburgh University during the first decade of this century, which culminated in Victoria Braithwaite’s book Do Fish Feel Pain? (2010) In fact this book has been cited as “demonstrating that fish feel pain” by the U.K.’s Animals in Science Committee, which advises the government on the welfare of animals in research.

Such studies, however they may advance the interests of fishes in general, themselves involve the killing of many individuals. The extraordinary corpus of knowledge about fish lives and physiology upon which Balcombe bases his book (still only “a tiny fraction of what they know”, he properly reminds us) has mostly been learned in the laboratory or at least in controlled waters with varying degrees of intervention (see, as another example, the study of face-recognition in archer-fish, recounted in this blog at 12 June 2016). Balcombe comments upon this from time to time, often enough unfavourably.

And of course fishes are used in laboratories for purely human interests on a very much larger scale. During the last ten years they have overtaken rats as the second most numerous lab animal in the U.K. , with over 500,000 ‘procedures’ out of the 3.9 million total at the last annual count (2016). At Oxford University, there were 3,106 such procedures in 2007, but 14,737 last year. Among other purposes, fishes are used in order to study genetic abnormalities and infectious diseases, to test drugs and industrial chemicals (infused into their water), and, at Oxford in particular, in cardiac research. The zebra-fish (Danio rerio) is especially preferred, and has been the focus of over 25,000 scientific papers to date, so Jonathan Balcombe says, adding in brackets that “many of these studies are inhumane”.

All this constitutes only a small part of the total trillions, of course, but the two users, science and the food industry, aren’t quite distinct anyway. As with land-animal farming, the research laboratory doesn’t merely serve modern fish-farming; it makes the practice possible. In the chapter ‘Fish out of Water’, Balcombe pays a visit to the Freshwater Institute in West Virginia, a research establishment dedicated to that end. In the “main warehouse”, there are about a dozen tanks. The largest of them contains perhaps 5000 young salmon, each one a foot or so in length, “layers of greenish-brown fishes gliding effortlessly in an eternal circle”.

A 2011 report on the subject of fish welfare in laboratories concluded that “There has traditionally been more tolerance of stress, disease, and mortality as an endpoint [a euphemism, I think, for leaving the fish to die of its own accord] in fish research, compared to research using mammals.” It attributes this disparity partly to the influence of “general attitudes to fish in society.” It may well be true that the low existential status allowed to the fish in western culture (perhaps in all cultures) has permitted a corresponding carelessness in the laboratory, and of course it’s this low status that Balcombe hopes to correct with What a Fish Knows. But although he mixes his science with personal anecdotes, most of his evidence does come, as I’ve mentioned, from scientific research. Evidently, then, the knowledge that would justify a higher esteem has been there (supposing that we should require knowledge of any sort in order to justify respect for fellow-lives); notably it’s been there in the universities. But the moral lesson has not been learned from it.

In an article on fish intelligence, the biologist Culum Brown blames this moral obduracy on a false and partisan concept of evolution, persistent even among scientists: “the deep-rooted notion that the evolution of fossil fishvertebrates follows a linear progression from inferior to superior forms, culminating in humans at the apex.” Since the fish is the most ancient of the animals, some 500 million years old, and since all the other vertebrates evolved from “some common fish-like ancestor around 360 million years ago”, therefore fishes are regarded as belonging to a primitive stage of mental and behavioural development, long grown out of by such as ourselves. However, Professor Brown points out that the fishes themselves have not been stationary during that time; they’ve evolved and diversified to meet or create new circumstances. In fact they “reached peak diversity around 15 million years ago”, which is just the time when the Hominidae family were evolving. “Thus most fish species are no more ‘primitive’ than we are.” That’s no doubt why Jonathan Balcombe calls fishes our “cousins”: we share ancestors with them, as contemporaries.

Still, those ancient fish of the Cambrian period are ancestors to us, and as Professor Brown says, “despite apparent differences between fish and humans [and these apparent differences, so conspicuous and yet irrelevant, no doubt account for much of ArcimboldoFourElementsour careless disesteem of them], evolution tends to be highly conservative; thus, many human traits are identical to or derived from our fishlike ancestors.” If we’re not precisely made of fish, as imagined by the artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, we were certainly made possible by fishes. This alone, even without all of what Jonathan Balcombe reports of their subtle perceptions, strange and complex life-ways, and beauty of form and colour, should persuade us to honour them, with all the revolution in our behaviour towards them which that would imply.

And in this respect, Lorenz’s story sets a sort of example, even though his fishes were indeed captive ones. We left the jewel fish in a state of indecision, with both food and offspring inside his mouth:

For many seconds the father jewel fish stood riveted and one could almost see how his feelings were working. Then he solved the conflict in a way for which one was bound to feel admiration: he spat out the whole contents of his mouth: the worm fell to the bottom, and the little jewel fish, becoming heavy in the way described above, did the same. Then the father turned resolutely to the worm and ate it up, without haste but all the time with one eye on the child which ‘obediently’ lay on the bottom beneath him. When he had finished, he inhaled the baby and carried it home to its mother.

Some students, who had witnessed the whole scene, started as one man to applaud.

That would have been the highest honour available in the circumstances. Best of all would be to learn about fishes by visiting their own explanatory environments (as indeed Lorenz much preferred to do), and otherwise as far as possible to honour them by leaving them and their waters alone.


Notes and references:

Konrad Lorenz recounts the incident of the jewel fish in King Solomon’s Ring, Methuen and Co., 1952, pp.37-8 (transl. Marjorie Kerr Wilson). Incidentally, Lorenz gives good advice about creating a ‘natural’ aquarium, without for instance the need for artificial aeration, but he’s speaking about locally collected flora and fauna. I doubt that such an environment could be created for the tropical fish, whose use for interior decoration is another wretched instance of the mistreatment of these animals on a very large scale.

What a Fish Knows was first published in 2016 by Scientific American Books. Quotations here are from the 2017 edition, published in the U.K. by Oneworld Publications, pp. 6, 7. 232, and 233.

The Animals in Science Committee references this research at p.51 of its new report Review of Harm Benefit Analysis in the Use of Animals in Research (2017). The quotation is actually from the ‘impact study’ which the Review cites as evidence of beneficial laboratory research: see

The post about archer-fish, ‘Spitting in their Faces’, is at

The 2011 report quoted is Guidance on the severity classification of scientific procedures involving fish: report of a Working Group appointed by the Norwegian Consensus-Platform for the Replacement, Reduction and Refinement of animal experiments, published in the Royal Society of Medicine Press journal Laboratory Animals, Oct. 45 (4). This report does advise that the low estimation of fish relative to other animals “should be challenged within a research setting”. It’s accessible online at

The article by Professor Culum Brown is Fish Intelligence, Sentience and Ethics, published in the journal Animal Cognition 18 (2015), pp.1-17, and published online at  The quotations are from p.3.

The fossilized fishes pictured are Holoptychius flemingii from the Devonian period (i.e. 419 – 358 million years ago, and sometimes called ‘The Age of the Fishes’), as displayed in Oxford University’s Natural History Museum. The painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo is ‘Water’, from his Four Elements, dated 1566, from the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.