Prize Day with the Concordat folk

Advent! – and on the U.K. vivisection scene that means above all the Annual Openness Awards and Stephen Paget Memorial Lecture, held this year on December 5th at the Royal College of Physicians in London. The main purpose of the event is to review the progress of the profession’s Concordat on Openness on Animal Research. It has something of the character of a school speech-day, with its prizes, speeches, and atmosphere of excitability and self-congratulation, reflected in many exclamatory tweets. The element of retrospect (‘our achievements’) was provided this year by a 46-page Annual Report, and the distinguished speaker for the occasion was the Government’s Chief Science Adviser, Professor Sir Mark Walport. In his Memorial Lecture, titled ‘Animal Research – Then and Now’, Professor Walport naturally enough praised Stephen Paget, the man who founded the Research Defence Society in the early twentieth century to promote the interests of animal research and its practitioners. It’s the RDS, now renamed Understanding Animal Research, that sponsors this annual ceremony, among other ways of continuing Paget’s work.

But there was a predecessor even to the RDS, called the Association for the Advancement of Medicine by Research, which Professor Walport didn’t speak about. It was formed shortly after the passing of the first law to regulate vivisection in the U.K., the Cruelty to Animals Act (1876). The AAMR’s purpose – so one committee member informed readers of the British Medical Journal in 1882 – was to establish itself as the unofficial expert adviser to successive Home Secretaries, and by this means to make sure that the 1876 Act would be “harmlessly administered”. And in fact it achieved its aim with great success and secrecy for about twenty years, until it was finally hauled into public attention in 1907. In that year the anti-vivisectionist Stephen Coleridge told a Royal Commission on Vivisection that the Home Office officials, charged with administering the Act impartially and democratically, had in fact “constituted themselves the mere spokesmen of the vivisectors.”

The AAMR having thus been outed, and its privileged position discredited, Paget set up the Research Defence Society in the following year, 1908. As its name suggests, and as Paget had already showed at length in his book Experiments on Animals (1900), he and most of the professionals he represented saw animal research as a work of philanthropy ignorantly pestered, not just by campaigning groups like Coleridge’s, but also by ill-conceived regulations. After all, Paget had been for some years honorary secretary of the AAMR. Incidentally, one of the AAMR’s founders, the man in whose house it had its earliest meetings, was John Scott Burdon Sanderson, who was about to become Oxford’s first Waynflete Professor of Physiology [see post for 21 November 2015].

So that’s the history of the vivisection push until recent years. But the Concordat has introduced a very different way of promoting animal research. So far from resisting unwanted attentions, the policy is now to advertise and take conspicuous pride in what’s being done. The key word is “pro-active”. On the face of it, this just means a whole lot more PR; in fact the Concordat’s name is itself a piece of PR showmanship. And probably that increase is enough in itself to have an effect. I don’t wish to make improper connections, but one thing which emerged very clearly from the Nuremberg Medical Trials of 1946-7 was that human scruples are very easily habituated away. One of the doctors on trial at Nuremberg told the court how human vivisection had come upon him and his colleagues as a “wholly new” idea: they “had to get used to the idea”. But, as the trials showed, they did get used to it. Not getting used to things which at first seem wrong or even merely distasteful is the bulwark of morality, but it’s not a very durable one. It’s easily worn away.

Anyway, the Concordat ambition goes beyond that traditional PR. It was very noticeable at this recent speech-day that signatories to the Concordat (universities, medical charities, biomedical businesses, contract laboratories) are being pressed to provide a more rounded account of their work: not just the fun and progress side of working with animals, but also the suffering and failure. This was something which Professor Walport touched on in his lecture (a good lecture, by the way) when he urged scientists to use the same habit of dis-interested truthfulness in their defence of animal research that they presumably use in reporting the research itself. Likewise, the Annual Report says, “Signatories need to place greater emphasis on the communication of the harms and suffering of animals in research.”

I haven’t seen any such “emphasis” at all in the animal research web-sites which I’ve viewed, but then I haven’t attempted a thorough survey. One web-site I did study was that of Leicester University, this year’s winner of the Media Engagement Award. It won the prize by making accessible, to journalists from the Sun newspaper, its animal researches into the modern scourge of obesity. I make no comment on the ethics of using animals to research that particular human problem, and anyway the material does not seem to be publicly available on the University’s web-site. What I do find there is a ‘Policy Statement’. The University is “guided” in its animal research, we are told, by eight “principles”. Seven of these flourished principles, as it must be aware, are actually statutory requirements, but of course it’s good to know that Leicester University means to obey the law. The eighth principle is that the results of its research should be “regularly published”: this, I thought, was what all scientists wish to do – indeed have to do if they are to get any more funding.

But then even the Report itself seems to have difficulty living up to its ambition (I say “its” because no authors are specified). One of the opportunities it suggests for the new “greater emphasis” is that web-sites might use “more images of realistic research” rather than library pictures of the merely reassuring sort [p.13]. The Report itself uses about twenty images, nearly all of them belonging to the ‘kindly staff and contented animal’ category. Starting with two cheerful girls exhibiting baby mice, there are then some pigs in straw, some hens being carried about, calves looking interested, rats with a positive excess of ‘enrichments’, and so on. Two or three pictures show animals calmly receiving injections. All seem in excellent health, except that one baby chick looks slightly hung-over, but I can’t tell whether that’s “realistic” or just a torpid moment. There are no pictures of animals evidently suffering, nor any of dead animals. Perhaps the Report’s Concordat readers don’t themselves want or need realism: presumably they already know the reality, being persons who (in Professor Burdon Sanderson’s phrase) “belong to our craft”.

But in fact even the very basic Concordat principle of ‘openness’ still causes unease among the signatories. And here you get a sense of the long tradition of secrecy in this business. Some of these organisations, it seems, “have concerns that staff will be shocked to learn that animal research takes place at their institutions.” [p.13] This appears to be an anxiety even in those institutions which one had assumed were the nation’s centres of free intellectual exchange: “A particular worry for universities has been the large proportion of staff and students who were previously unaware that animals were being used for research.” [p.43]

And of course the same worry must affect communications with the public at large. Before the Concordat went live in 2014, its managers commissioned Ipsos MORI to do some market research into what lay-people might expect ‘openness’ to imply (see the notes below for the methodology of this research). The result, published in November 2013 as Openness in Animal Research, showed how far such people do indeed differ in their ethics, scruples, sense of justice, and of course knowledge of what’s going on, from those who do the animal research.

A notable instance of this divide concerns the killing of animals. That which, to laboratory staff, is a daily or even hourly routine (the daily average of animal deaths at Oxford University is over 620), came as an unpleasant surprise to Ipsos MORI’s public:

One key issue across all groups was what happens to the animals after the experiments are carried out … they assumed that the animals would be ‘retired’, though there was no fixed conception of how this would work in practice. When told that most animals cosmetic-testing-equipment[‘almost all’ would be more accurate] were killed after the procedures, there was concern; despite being told that this was done humanely, many were still adamant that it was a very serious harm to shorten an animal’s life unnecessarily … They saw death as the most serious harm which could be caused to an animal … A sense of natural justice meant that, for many, killing animals at all after experiments (except where the procedure required a post-mortem assessment of the animals) seemed very unfair … “Breeding them just to kill them off – that’s cruelty!” [pp.19 and 34-5]

How different these morals are from those in use among practitioners, and at the Home Office, will be especially well appreciated when we recall that the professionals don’t think death worth recording at all in the case of animals who, for one reason or another, haven’t been used in experiments. Oxford University, for instance, keeps no central account of these numbers, and cannot provide them on request.

There’s no doubt that the Concordat has improved communications, albeit on the profession’s own terms. Much of the above material, for instance, comes from documents made available online. And the policy of going beyond merely favourable PR may well be an honest and even honourable one. However, even if the signatories can bring themselves to act upon it, I don’t see how it can work. Why should their concessions as to harm and failure be regarded as conclusive any more than their boasting is?

The point was emphatically made during that Ipsos MORI consultation. One thing which shocked the participants was the slightness of the inspection regime: “Participants in all three locations were surprised and disappointed to learn that the number of inspectors is in the 20s rather than in the hundreds, as they had assumed.” [p.39] They were puzzled, too, by the mildness of the sanctions for misconduct: “participants assumed that the Home Office regularly gives very severe punishments, such as projects and institutions being shut down.” [p.41] Openness of the Concordat kind – consisting mainly of words, selected images, and calculated hospitality – is unlikely to bridge this gap in attitudes and expectations. Many of the participants took the view that the animal research profession would only deserve the trust which it aims for if it “’puts its money where its mouth is’ and funds an enhanced inspectorate” [p.42]. And they didn’t just mean more inspectors from the Home Office; they had in mind inspections by animal protection groups too. It was one of the consultation’s ‘Key Findings’ that “participants wanted the sector to subject itself to external scrutiny on animal welfare from groups who did not have a vested interest in the research process. This was felt to be the best guarantee of a genuine desire for openness.” [p.16]

Deeds not words, in short  ̶  the exact opposite of PR.

 

Notes and references:

An account of the Openness Awards event, including film of Professor Walport’s lecture and the prize-giving, can be seen on the web-site of Understanding Animals in Research at http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/communications-media/openness-awards-2016-and-the-80th-stephen-paget-memorial-lecture/

The Concordat’s Annual Report 2016 can be read here: http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/files/5514/8103/4586/UAR_Concordat_2016_Final.pdf

An account of the AAMR’s high-jacking of the inspection regime, including the two quotations, can be found in John Vyvyan, The Dark Face of Science (Michael Joseph, 1971) at pp.70-77.

The quotation from the Nuremberg Medical Trial comes in Mitscherlich & Mielke, The Medical Case (Elek Books, 1962) pp.46-7.

Professor Burdon Sanderson used the phrase “belonging to our craft” during his evidence to the 1875 Royal Commission: see Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes (HMSO 1876) p.75.

Ipsos MORI did its research with three groups of about 18 persons each, chosen to exclude experts, activists, and researchers, but otherwise to represent a cross-section of the U.K. population. Two workshops for each group, with an interval for ‘homework’ in between, were held in London, Cardiff, and Manchester. These were full-day events and included presentations and films (including BUAV undercover film) from different sides of the subject, discussions, questionnaires, etc. The whole report can read at https://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Publications/sri-health-openness-in-animal-research-2013.pdf

The photograph is by Brian Gunn (www.iaapea.com).