Another Concordat Christmas

It’s an Advent phenomenon religiously studied each year in this blog: the awards ceremony and annual report of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research. Must Christmas entail this duty of attention, among all its other demands? In earlier years, the portentous title (Concordat!) and the atmosphere of inter-house competition at a school did provide some slight comic relief, but now the relentless expansion of its missionary activities, and in fact the Concordat’s patent effectiveness, have worn that fun away. Reading through it all is merely hard work. Still, this is the animal-research profession talking to itself about how to address the rest of us. That alone makes it important. And then, the Concordat has, within its few years, transformed the public management of this subject, from 150 years of strenuous secrecy to a quite unnatural effusiveness, even bumptiousness (I’m thinking, for instance, of the llamas at Reading University – “our Fifi” and others – tirelessly boosted for “helping scientists”). It’s a revolution of a kind, and we have to wonder what its consequences are going to be.

Of course events like open days, science fairs, and laboratory tours have been cut back in 2021. As one university put the point in fine higher-education prose, “Due to the pandemic there have been restrictions on public engagement activities that have been possible regarding animal research.” Therefore the emphasis has been upon online publicity and communications within the research institutions. These are easier, less challengeable PR functions. They are also more completely within the grip of PR professionals, whose influence seems accordingly more conspicuous this year. 

It’s not just that the costs to the animals – i.e. the bad news, which the PR people are not in a position to know much about anyway – are going unspecified or even unnoticed among the vivid and exciting prospects of discovery and cures. That omission is something which the Concordat’s annual reports habitually ask signatories to address. More insidiously the published ‘information’ is slanted or spun, so that what is called transparency is really propaganda. For instance, Bath University (one of the Concordat’s ‘Leaders in Openness’) is specially featured in the report this year for promoting awareness of its animal work “across campus”; as a result, we’re told, “staff felt better informed about the necessity of animals in research.” Of course it’s an axiom in the profession that hostility to animal research is the product of ignorance. To be “better informed” is to see “the necessity”, then. But information and persuasion are distinct things, and wouldn’t be confused like this if ‘openness’ were really a primary purpose.

Besides, such deliberate management of the information easily strays into actual falsehood. Sampling the publicity of the 122 signatories to the Concordat (by now a mighty symposium of material), I find the Physiological Society strangely mis-telling the history of its part in the run-up to the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876. Apparently the Society, founded by happy coincidence in that same year, joined the British Medical Association in a “campaign” which “led to the incorporation of additional protections for experimental animals.” Eh? In fact, the Society was founded largely in order to resist the proposed legislation. It included in its original number several of those who, during the Royal Commission on the subject, had given evidence hostile to the mere idea of “protections for experimental animals”, interpreting it as an attack upon their professional honour. The Society’s first chairman, Professor Burdon Sanderson, was one such. So was his colleague Emmanuel Klein, who had notoriously declared himself “entirely indifferent” to the sufferings of experimental animals. It was these Physiological Society men, together with the BMA, whose lobbying turned the proposed Act from a measure really capable of protecting the animals (for instance, the original draft prohibited experiments on dogs, cats, and horses) into an Act which was instead aimed (so the anti-vivisectionist Frances Power Cobbe declared) at “protecting their tormentors”.

Well, that’s history, or story anyway. But it’s worth mentioning that the Physiological Society subsequently delegated its more propagandist activities to an Association for the Advancement of Medical Research, specially created for that purpose. This in turn became the Research Defence Society, which was itself re-formed a few years ago as Understanding Animal Research, the organisation which now supervises the Concordat. And the story told on the Physiological Society’s web-site, wrong as it is, reflects a notable change in the outlook of this promotional dynasty. From militant defence of the professional interest, it has come to regard itself as owner-manager of the whole dispute – much in the way the Concordat urges institutions to originate (to “own”) news stories, rather than respond defensively to ones published by journalists and others. It’s in this context that one should understand Bath University’s action (cited in this year’s Concordat report) of inviting the Animal Justice Project to set up its protest on campus rather than out on the streets during Open Day 2018. ‘The Concordat, your one-stop reference for everything to do with animal research: we even manage the argument against it!’

Of course it isn’t really ‘everything’, even on the research side. Those signatory institutions that do some of the harshest experimenting, and often on the larger animals, namely the Contract Research Organisations, are permitted greater secrecy (for “business reasons around competitiveness and confidentiality”). They aren’t expected to identify particular research projects on their web-sites, or even to declare their animal numbers. Signatories which don’t do their own research (medical charities, for instance, or professional societies) likewise have less to say, though for different reasons. But all of these are encouraged to spread the word in other ways: in annual reports, in staff newsletters, on notice-boards, and, more ominously, when recruiting staff or funding awards. In these latter cases, they are advised to make it clear, even where the position or grant has no connection with animal research, that the institution is committed to such work. In fact we’re told that it’s now considered “good practice”, for all Concordat institutions, “to include interview questions highlighting that the organisation carries out animal research as part of the recruitment process for all staff regardless of their role.” So if you accept the job, or the award, you implicitly – or perhaps expressly (depending on what form those “questions” take) – endorse the animal research.

One signatory apparently doing an especially fine job in this respect is the Pirbright Institute. At any rate, it received a Concordat award this year for its “internal engagement practices”. Apparently Pirbright’s staff have been so thoroughly engaged that “no one in the organisation is unaware of the research which goes on there.” But then Pirbright is a research laboratory whose declared mission is “To be the world’s most innovative centre for preventing and controlling viral diseases of livestock”. This, we’re told, will be achieved by “the development of vaccines, antivirals, diagnostics, genetic selection, genetically modified animals and arthropod vectors [insect carriers or similar], and the modelling of disease outbreaks.” Surely the staff must already have deduced for themselves that Pirbright’s research involved animals? I suspect that here again the providing of information has been confused with the celebrating of institutional values and successes – with in-house boasting, in short. 

By the way, you’ll notice the rationale of research implied here: using high-tech force to sustain industrialized animal farming and its various pernicious effects on human and planetary health. Among Pirbright’s research themes is avian flu, one of whose regular visitations is, at this moment, causing many thousands of poultry and ducks in the UK to be prematurely destroyed. Avian flu is endemic in wild bird populations, but it seems to do limited harm there. It’s in so-called ‘commercial’ flocks, over-crowded and stationary, that it flourishes most ruinously – flocks like the 22,000 ducks destroyed this month on a ‘farm’ in Northern Ireland. Of course being prematurely killed was the ducks’ destiny anyway, but such culls highlight the perversity of this roundabout of animal disease and animal research. Pirbright’s tonic internal PR may create a loyal and committed staff, but that has nothing to do with the real value of the work.

The same is true more generally of the whole Concordat push. It’s a most smooth operation, in its way brilliantly conceived and carried through, worlds away in technique from the clumsy and defensive indignation of the old Physiological Society or the Research Defence Society. But its purpose is not essentially different. When the report notes that 97% of its signatories agree with the statement “the Concordat is an important step forward for biomedical research”, we know what sort of progress they mean. They mean what the Physiological Society meant: allowing the professionals to know best and carry on their work in peace. They believe that the Concordat’s managed publicity will accomplish this. And yet the authors of the report note with concern that, “Despite openness”, Concordat signatories “are seeing increasing protests from organized groups”. They sound puzzled by this, but we needn’t be. Openness is certainly a great improvement on secrecy, and perhaps has a reassuring effect upon those wishing to feel reassured, but it leaves the substance of the trouble, the ethical wrong, completely untouched. Until “an important step forward” in that respect too becomes part of its mission, the Concordat will go on making (no doubt) a lot of noise, but not much difference.

Notes and references:

The Concordat awards ceremony, held on 6 December at the Royal College of Physicians in London, is reported here: https://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/openness-awards-and-paget-lecture-2021/  The annual report is here: https://concordatopenness.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Concordat-Report-2021.pdf  All quotations not otherwise referenced are from that text, including statements made by signatory institutions.

The Physiological Society account of its own history is online here: https://www.physoc.org/about-us/history-archives/historicalhighlights/foundation-of-the-society/  Klein’s evidence to the Royal Commission appears on pp.182-6 of Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, London, HMSO, 1876. Frances Power Cobbe is quoted from an earlier post in this blog, in which there is more detailed discussion of the passing of the 1876 Act: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/08/01/in-defence-of-frances-power-cobbe/

The Pirbright Institute’s web-site, where its mission is posted, is here: https://www.pirbright.ac.uk/  Incidentally, Pirbright carried out some of the animal testing for Oxford University’s vaccine research, on mouse and pig ‘models’, as reported here: https://www.pirbright.ac.uk/news/2021/01/early-animal-studies-pirbright-and-oxford-yield-promising-results-new-potential-covid Avian flu in Northern Ireland is reported here: https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/uknews/uks-largest-ever-bird-flu-outbreak-reported-in-northern-ireland/ar-AARJuy8?ocid=mailsignout&li=BBoPWjQ

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