On the Trail of an Untruth

Oxford University’s online introduction to animal research, headed ‘Research using animals: an overview’, takes the form of a questions and answer session. Your simple requests for guidance (“Why is animal research necessary?”, “Is it morally right to use animals in research?”, “Aren’t animals too different from humans to tell us anything useful?”, etc.) are answered with firm authority (“No.” starts the answer to that last question) but in relaxed, even incorrect, English (“they share a huge amount of similarities with humans.”).

Your fourteenth question (a slight whine imputed to it by this time) is this: “We may have used animals in the past to develop medical treatments, but are they really needed in the 21st century?” It receives the following answer: “Yes. New techniques have dramatically reduced the number of animals needed – the number has almost halved over the last 30 years – but there is overwhelming scientific consensus … etc.” No comparative figures, for the University or for the UK, are supplied to justify that astonishing claim between the dashes. However, it clearly refers to the nation as a whole, and of course the national numbers are readily available. They show that in the 29 years between 1987, when the counting system introduced by the 1986 Act came into use, and 2016, when the national statistics were last published, there has been an increase of about 5%. (If 1986 were taken as the reference date, the increase would be larger, but the two numbers are not properly comparable.) Not a steady increase, it’s true: there was a fall in the numbers till the year 2001, to about 2.6 million, then a steady rise to the 2016 number of 3.94 million. This history needs to be kept in mind during what follows.

Why should the University’s Animal Care and Ethical Review Committee (ACER), whose duty it is among other things to keep the University and the wider public informed on this subject, make such a wild and therefore discreditable claim about numbers? The answer, as I discovered by asking, is that it didn’t. Apparently ACER itself doesn’t compose the official public account of animal research at the University. The account is put together in the University’s Public Affairs Office. Presumably that’s why these animal research pages, which date from about 2011 and hardly alter except when the annual numbers change, nevertheless appear in the category ‘News and Events’. We’re dealing, as it turns out, not with the voice of authority but with PR.

So how did the Public Affairs Office come by this false claim? Unlike ACER, this is a department of the University which doesn’t willingly answer questions (its preference is evidently for what the Concordat on Openness calls “public-facing communication tools”: i.e. one-way traffic). Therefore I had to start with a guess. In its search for tonic material about animal research, where would the Public Affairs Office look? Surely it would go to its fellow-professionals at Understanding Animal Research. The UAR web-site is there for just such a purpose. “Click here to find everything you need to know about animal research”, it says – this particular encouragement specifically but rather puzzlingly directed at “scientists”. To journalists, the appeal is more frankly utilitarian: “the pages below give you quick access to our media centre, where you will find guidelines, quick facts, and links to other good information sources.” Quick facts: just what the Public Affairs Office would have been hoping for. So that’s the trail I followed.

But this is a very large web-site, branching out indeed into subordinate web-sites: one a sort of encyclopaedia of the subject (AnimalResearch.info), another a “global information service about animal rights extremism” (AnimalRightsExtremism.info), a third dealing with the industry’s Concordat on Openness. As the UAR’s name implies, the general premise of the whole site is that not disputation but knowledge is what brings us to a right attitude: that is, to approval of animal research as a necessary resource when other satisfactory means do not exist. This is what UAR habitually refers to as “the middle ground”, though what exactly it’s in the middle of is not clear: certainly there is a more radical position (in favour of abolition), but no position more reactionary than UAR’s (anything goes, for instance) is countenanced by UK law.

In general the tone of the web-site is merely positivistic, rather than defensive or strident. Here is UAR on the subject ‘Goat’, for instance. (That title itself, making the animal sound like a useful material, oil or aluminium perhaps, makes further comment unnecessary.) “Goats”, we’re told,

are gaining acceptance as an established model for biomedical research and surgical training . . . Moreover, a unique advantage to using livestock or companion animal species is that it also allows for ‘dual-purpose’ research: that is, research that not only benefits human health by greater understanding of biological processes, but can also advance animal agriculture so that we have a continued supply of abundant, safe, affordable, and high quality meat and dairy products.

Besides, the “friendly and docile nature of the goat” make it a particularly “desirable animal model for research and teaching programs”. At the end of this survey of the animal – a text whose spelling suggests that it comes from an American source, though none is cited – we’re told that “214 experimental procedures used goat [again] for research in 2016 in the UK.” 214? Wake up, UK: you’re missing opportunities!

Other animal species can be followed in an ‘A-Z of animals’. (I’m still looking for the source of that claim). Ferrets, for instance: among their points of utility has apparently been the testing of the notorious drug thalidomide, which “induces birth defects in very few species”. That’s odd, because elsewhere we’re told that thalidomide would have shown up as harmful to unborn babies if only testing on animals had then been required, because “it had very similar effects in many species.” This latter version is perhaps the more reliable, since it appears in a section expressly devoted to correcting common misunderstandings, headed ‘Myths and Facts’.

Countering the ignorance and disingenuousness of its opponents is an essential part of UAR’s mission, and a certain amount of acerbity, jeering even, is thought legitimate here. (This is especially so in the pieces written by UAR’s Head of Policy and Media, Chris Magee. His account of Frances Power Cobbe was the subject of a post in VERO’s blog on 1 August 2017.) Accordingly, the ‘myths’ are presented adversarially, as ill-informed assertions, rather than as polite questions (“Research on animals is not relevant to people because animals are different from people”, rather than Oxford University’s “Aren’t animals too different from humans to tell us anything useful?”). But otherwise this feature on the UAR web-site does bear quite a close resemblance to the University page. And sure enough, when we reach myth number 11, “Animals don’t need to be used in research because there are alternatives”, the factual correction includes these sentences: “Scientists have strong ethical, economic and legal obligations to use animals in research only when necessary. Thus the number of research animals used annually in the UK has almost halved in the last 30 years.” Found it!

I don’t doubt that this was the source for the University’s statement, dismaying as it must be to see a university picking up and disseminating knowledge in this amateurish way. It unhappily illustrates, in fact, just how ‘myths’ (in this loose sense) work. As for UAR, their excuse for setting the myth going is that it was material left over from some earlier year, when it was quite properly posted as a fact. The last time such a claim could justly have been made was in the period 2001-4, when numbers were indeed about half what they had been in the UK’s worst vivisection years of the 1970s. 2004: that was well before UAR even existed under its present name. “Click here”, then, “to find everything you only need to think you know about animal research.”

UAR has promptly removed the claim from its web-site, but of course it’s the habit of myths to live on in spite of the evidence or even of express correction. At the time of writing, Oxford University continues to give the claim currency (though VERO first queried it in mid-April), and who can say where else it’s been taken up and promoted? I know that numbers aren’t the essence of what’s wrong with vivisection. They may even – as this blog has often said – help to obfuscate the matter. They certainly will if they’re not even the right ones.


Notes and references:

The Oxford University web-page in question is at http://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research/research-using-animals-an-overview

You can see a chart of Home Office numbers from 1945 onwards on p.13 of the statistical report for 2016: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/627284/annual-statistics-scientific-procedures-living-animals-2016.pdf

“public-facing communication tools” is quoted from the Annual Report of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research, 2017, referenced and commented on in this blog last Christmas here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/12/18/advent-pr-style/

UAR’s web-site is at http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/  The account of the goat is on the associated web-site here: http://www.animalresearch.info/en/designing-research/research-animals/goat-capra-aegagrus-hircus/