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 initiatives, 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” ; 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” , with “balanced information, acknowledging harms as well as benefits of animal research” . It admits, however, that to do so constitutes “a challenging area for signatories” . 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” . 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 .
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” . 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 https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/08/28/come-see-our-worlds/
The Concordat Annual Report can be read at http://concordatopenness.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Concordat-Report-2017.pdf
The Imperial College video is on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NCNEC53ZRs and the BUAV film, here following a few minutes of a BBC Radio 4 news report on the exposé, is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p__AqH0Dn9w
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: https://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2016/jun/10/survey-finds-that-prs-outnumber-journalists-by-large-margin
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.