Home Office statistics: numbers, words, and euphemisms

The Home Office has now published its statistical report on the animal research done in Great Britain (i.e. omitting Northern Ireland) during 2015. It shows that 4.14 million ‘procedures’ were completed last year. This is the largest number ever recorded under the 1986 Act, and tends to confirm that the promising drop in the numbers during 2014 (3.87 million) was the result of under-reporting in that year, rather than a sudden change of direction. The new system had just been introduced, whereby the research projects are counted when they finish rather than when they begin, and not everyone seems to have understood it. So the Home Office advises that the new figures should be compared with 2013 rather than 2014 (for VERO’s comment on the 2014 figures, see http://www.vero.org.uk/events.asp.). In that case, there has been a slight increase of 1% or 21 thousand in these ‘procedures’. This in turn means that the real numbers have been rising in every year since 2001, except 2009, which came after a notable jump the year before. During this whole period, the numbers have increased by about 58%.

This new Home Office report makes an exhaustive summary of every countable aspect of the nation’s work as vivisector in 2015. Its own two-page précis can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/538556/scientific-procedures-living-animals-2015snr.pdf. There are other useful and more critical summaries to be found on the web-sites of the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments and Cruelty Free International. These notice, for instance, the rise in numbers of primates used in research (from 3,220 to 3,600), and the continuing use of dogs in toxicology studies, one of the most unpleasant areas of research. There’s also a review on the web-site of Understanding Animal Research, which is the promotional arm of the animal research industry. At the end of it the Chief Executive, Dr Wendy Jarrett, is quoted as saying “today’s statistics will help people to find out more about the reality of animal research in the 21st century.”

Yes, on the face of it the statistics ought to help in that way, but I doubt that they will help much. Quite apart from the varying interpretations which statistics notoriously allow, they address a part of the mind (the numerate) which is completely unrelated to the part where ethics or empathy live. What can one feel about this great torrent of numbers? It’s a crowd scene with no foreground. Every now and then, a detail will catch the dazzled attention. For instance, under the category ‘regulatory testing’ (p.49), the astonishing fact emerges that the LD50 and LC50 tests (= the Lethal Dose or Lethal Concentration that kills 50% of the test animals) are still in use. These true products of the mind as computer, giving a specious accuracy to toxicology tests at the cost of human decency, accounted for 8898 animals in 2015 (mice, rats, and fish). Nearby, now that one’s eye is adjusted to such detail, it seems that something very like the Draize test (listed as “eye irritation/corrosion”) also survives: 173 rabbits went that way. But what: only 173? In most of the categories, that number would simply have disappeared in the ‘rounding down’ of untidy decimals (see User Guide to Annual Statistics, pp.9-10). On the other hand, you’d certainly hate to see the test done to a rabbit you knew, and you’d be quite properly liable to prosecution for cruelty if you did it yourself. And by the way, that’s a useful reminder that the Home Office is wrong to define the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act in its preamble as “an animal protection measure” (p.5): the Act is also, and much more successfully, an animal-user’s protection measure.

Anyway, such details as the ones mentioned are generally invisible in the glare of the huge numbers. The whole dazzling parade of facts, so competently put together by the Home Office’s statisticians, is therefore a kind of euphemism, tending as much to hide as to show the “reality of animal research in the 21st century”.

A rather more informative source, and a necessary complement to the Annual Statistics, are the ‘non-technical summaries’ of proposed research which the Home Office also publishes (at https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/animal-research-and-testing). There you can see the research in detail, admittedly as presented by its partisans, but in the format required by the Home Office, with answers to questions about purpose, method, the 3Rs, and so on. The animals appear in more comprehensible numbers (150 pigs, 200 chickens), and their kind is more accurately identified (crows, rainbow trout, opossums, voles). What happens to them is more or less picturable, and the scene can be bloody and squalid, even where no suffering is involved (“In parallel to in vivo experiments, we will also carry out in vitro experiments using sheep uteri and ovaries collected from an abattoir” [God, what are we?]). You get some idea of how scientists may have judged the pain levels which are later to be recorded in the statistics (“The expected adverse effects are the development of skin wounds, inflammation and cancer. In most cases the severity will be mild. However, in some situations, such as tumour development, the severity will be moderate.” [excellent: cancer’s evidently not as bad as we feared.])

And now, with these and other Home Office publications about animal research to hand, you begin to realize that the word ‘procedure’, the key word in the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA) and the one on which you have to rely if the statistics are to make any sense, is itself a euphemism. Having myself been misled by this word, I shall try to show what’s wrong with it.

For the purposes of the Act, a “regulated procedure” is defined (see the User Guide, p.10) as “any procedure applied to a protected animal for an experimental or other scientific purpose, or for any educational purpose, that may have the effect of causing an animal pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm equivalent to, or higher than, that caused by the introduction of a needle in accordance with good veterinary practice.” The breeding of a genetically altered (GA) animal is quite properly counted as one such procedure under the Act, and we’re told in the 2-page summary that about half of those 4.14 million procedures “related to the creation/breeding of genetically altered animals that were not used in further procedures.” That seems to make good sense. The breeding would be one procedure. Those GA animals for whom that turned out not to be a sufficient contribution to science would become part of other (“further”) procedures, counted as such.

But in fact we know that this isn’t what’s being done. It would mean that there’d be many more procedures than animals in the total count, whereas we’re specifically told that the two numbers are always more or less the same, and that in the rare cases where the number of procedures is higher than the number of animals used “this is due to a re-use of animals” (User Guide, p.9). ‘Re-use’ is a term always meaning ‘used in a different project of research’, which is actually by no means a common practice. And for this purpose, GA breeding apparently doesn’t count as a different project. So the real situation is this: animals which have undergone the GA procedure, and are then used in “further procedures”, still count for only one procedure each.

All right, but even apart from the GA question, ‘procedure’ has a very elastic meaning, which seems to include its own plural. It may just mean an injection, such as the one which is the model for what minimally constitutes a regulated procedure as defined in the Act. On the other hand, it can mean a whole “series of regulated procedures”: that’s the phrase which the Home Office Use, Keeping Alive, and Re-use Advice Note (p.9) uses when reviewing the experience of an animal during one research project, and advising on its suitability for ‘re-use’. The User Guide explains (also p.9): “Each procedure (which may consist of several stages) for a given purpose on an animal is counted as one returnable procedure.” ‘Procedure’, it emerges, is a collective noun, but what exactly it may have collected in any particular instance there’s no way at all of discovering from the statistics.

I don’t know whether I’ve been able to make things clear; probably not, because this key-word in ASPA is not used clearly and consistently even in the official documentation. To summarise, then. A ‘procedure’ is an animal’s whole career of procedures within one research project. If it’s a GA animal, that career will include the procedure which brought it into being, and may or may not include others. In short ‘procedure’ is a term so elastic as to be almost meaningless. The number 4.14 million, therefore, really means 4.14 million multiplied by an unknowable n.

This ambiguity must affect every aspect of the published statistics. For instance, the rule for deciding the painfulness or severity of a ‘procedure’ is that it should be put in the severest of the four classes (sub-threshold, mild, moderate, or severe) which it reaches at any point during the research. But you will see that the meaning of a severity class is itself obscured by the vagueness of the term ‘procedure’. A procedure classed as ‘severe’ may have been a brief torment constituting the whole of an animal’s part in modern science, or it may have entailed that ‘severe’ pain together with a succession of other ‘severe’ or ‘moderate’ or ‘mild’ interventions covering the full period of a research project. It makes a great difference to our understanding and (lest we forget) to the animal concerned, but the difference cannot be indicated in the Home Office statistics.

It’s no wonder, now I come to think of it, that Understanding Animal Research has been content to present the Home Office statistics on its web-site as the “reality” of animal research. In truth, they’re a mixture of understatement, euphemism, and unintelligibility. Despite all the varieties of show and tell that the animal research industry now agrees to, the essential secrecy remains. And I should say that outsiders will never really know what’s going on until we get the number of ‘procedures’ down to nought.


[References: For Oxford University’s part in the 2015 numbers, see ‘Multitudes, multitudes’ (posted 24 April).       The Home Office’s Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals, Great Britain 2015 can be seen at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/537708/scientific-procedures-living-animals-2015.pdf ; its User Guide to Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals  is at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/538549/guide-animal-procedures.pdf ; its Use, Keeping Alive and Re-use (dated October 2015) is at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/470008/Use__Keeping_Alive_and_Re-use_Advice_Note.pdf .  Other references are to be found on the relevant web-sites.]




Spitting in their Faces

An item appeared on Oxford University’s ‘News and Events’ web-page a few days ago headed ‘Fish can recognise human faces, new research shows’. The fish in question were archer-fish (Toxotes chatareus), a tropical species which is able to bring down its insect prey by shooting water from its mouth. Researchers had presented these fish with images of human faces, and successfully trained them to spit at the ones associated with a food reward.

Probably this news item was also put out as a press release, since it was quickly picked up by the news media – for instance by BBC Radio 4 and by the Times newspaper. For them, it was a performing animal story, of the category ‘They’re smarter than you think!’ The title used by the University may have been deliberately worded with that in mind, because properly it should have read the other way round, ‘Human faces can be recognised by fish’. That is, the question which the research was aimed to address was not really about fish at all, but about the uniqueness or otherwise of the human capacity to recognise each other’s faces: is this capacity innate and peculiar to humans, or is it a particular application of the general visual competence possessed by most animals? If fish can do it, then recognising human faces must be at least partly a skill that can be learnt using powers of the eye not specialised for that purpose. After all, such a skill would have been of no practical advantage to any species of fish in the ordinary course of its evolutionary history, though it may now be earning archer-fish a few pellets of proprietary tropical fish-food in Oxford’s Department of Zoology.

Incidentally, it’s sad to think of these and other picturesque fish spending their lives in that grim stained-concrete heap, surely the most hideous of all Oxford’s science buildings. And not just in the laboratories: in the public part of that building, too, there’s an zoology buildingaquarium of tropical fish, sited in one of the corridors presumably for decorative and instructional purposes, and steadily mis-educating generations of students as to our proper relations with the rest of the natural world.

Anyway, other orders of animal than fish have been similarly quizzed in the past, and this present research does little more than extend and confirm existing data. The authors admit, in the full article as published in Science Reports, that the results so far are “not surprising” (a news-ruining observation which is accordingly omitted from the University’s ‘News and Events’ report). After all, accurate and discriminating eyesight is essential to the survival of many or perhaps most diurnal animals, and especially so, you would suppose, for a fish which takes aim at insects while its eyes are still underwater. Still, the authors look forward to further studies using fish. This routine conclusion to published research – i.e. that more research is needed – illustrates what the zoologist Ray Lankester, one of Oxford’s earliest and keenest vivisectors (of fish, tadpoles, crayfish, among others), said about animal research: that however regulated by law, it would naturally (and quite properly, so he believed) increase in geometrical progression.

As I said, this particular research got into mainstream media as a ‘smart animal’ story. Jenni Russell of the Times (9 June, p.22), happily unaware that the results had been thought unsurprising by the report’s own authors, called it “the week’s most startling news”. She pondered over similar evidences of cleverness in other “creatures” – a term which, tellingly, she seems to use only for non-human animals. Some birds, it seems, have shown themselves to be “just as smart as apes. They empathise, think logically and recognise themselves in a mirror [that popular shibboleth in nature’s class-system]”. An octopus that escaped from its tank must have used “real intelligence”, by which I think she means recognisable intelligence, intelligence like ours. The point about the Oxford research, then, was apparently not that fish have remarkable visual acuity, but that they have swum into human relevance by showing they can do something we thought only we could do.

Ms Russell’s piece is headed ‘Not-so-dumb animals deserve our respect’, so she does get a valuable lesson from the subject, however wrong-headedly. She declares herself a meat-eater who thinks “human survival worth experimenting on creatures for” (a familiarly melodramatic formulation), but now she is “wavering”: “I’m going to have to rethink my relationship with the creatures on this planet.” True, it’s all presented in the self-regarding life-style terms commonly used in such journalism: done in the mirror, in fact, of both self and species. And the term “deserve” has school-room force: only those who “can be shown to have complex brains” get the respect. It’s animal deserts, then, not animal rights: a variety of treats for tricks. But with luck some of the article’s readers may see further than its author, and get a more serious ethical message than she intended.

I think anyway that Jenni Russell may have over-interpreted what the archer-fish were recorded as doing, namely ‘recognising’ (telling apart) human faces, rather than, as she has it, ‘reading’ (getting information from) them. She may even have pictured the fish looking up into the living faces of laboratory staff. No such homely scene: the faces, so far from being live and local, were provided by the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology. This is the same Max Planck Institute at Tübingen with which Oxford University has had another news-link recently. The Institute’s various cruel experiments upon primates (conducted by way of research into human psychiatric and neurological pathologies), and its harsh management of these animals, were the subject of undercover investigation in 2013-14 by Cruelty Free International and the German group SOKO Tierschutz. Hurrying to Max Planck’s defence last year, the European Animal Research Association condemned the investigation, and announced that “some renown [sic] scientists from different affiliations have already given their expert support”. They quoted two such scientists, though not from different affiliations: both are Oxford professors. One of them, a professor of Experimental Psychology (that subject with its history of uniquely ruthless animal research), explained that the Institute’s work on monkeys was essential not just for human medicine, but also in order “to reduce the long-term need for animal experiments”. Excellent! Vivisection as a way of reducing vivisection: it may not be as plausible a piece of thinking as Ray Lankester’s prognosis, but at least its ‘affiliation’ to the alma mater of Lewis Carroll seems just right.


[References: For the ‘News and Events’ piece, with a short video of the fish spitting at a face, see http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2016-06-07-fish-can-recognise-human-faces-new-research-shows ; for the article in Scientific Reports, http://www.nature.com/articles/srep27523 ; for Cruelty Free International’s report, https://www.crueltyfreeinternational.org/what-we-do/investigations/monkey-experiments-max-planck-institute-germany .]