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

The Concordat’s Annual Report 2016 can be read here:

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

The photograph is by Brian Gunn (

Pharming Today

A chart showing the numbers of animals used in experiments in U.K. universities during 2014 (the most recent reportable year) puts Oxford University top, with its grand score of 226,739 – ahead of its nearest rival Edinburgh by about 25,000.

It may be that Oxford University’s scientific leadership takes quiet satisfaction in this result, if they’ve noticed it, as tending happily to confirm the University’s pre-eminence in biomedical science. After all, wasn’t this what their new building was for, to secure Oxford’s traditional place as the nation’s prime Laboratory, South Parks Roadcentre of animal research? However, as posted on the Oxford Students for Animals facebook page (and many others), the new information is headed ‘How many animals has your university killed?’, so it’s evidently not intended to please the contestant institutions, or the students whom they train in the practice. Accordingly there’s a defensive (but temperate) comment underneath it, from a medical scientist at Nottingham. He compares the lives of the U.K.’s laboratory animals favourably with those of animals on factory farms, and ends with this advice: shut the meat industry down FIRST before you try and curb the use of animals for discovering the drugs that cure our diseases.”

In one form or another, it’s a very familiar defence or put-off – as old, perhaps, as the vivisection debate itself (though not for that reason either right or wrong). It was certainly in use when the question first came before the British Parliament by means of a Royal Commission in 1875-6. Among those who tried it was the man who later became Oxford University’s first professor of Physiology, John Scott Burdon Sanderson. Part of his evidence tending to show that laboratory animals didn’t need legal protection was that ‘game’ animals were much worse off: the man had been a keen hare-courser, so of course he would have known what he was talking about. In 1927 the same argument was used by H. G. Wells in an article for the Sunday Express, in whose pages George Bernard Shaw soon afterwards demolished its moral logic thus: “This defence fits every possible crime from pitch-and-toss to manslaughter. Its disadvantage is that it is not plausible enough to impose on the simplest village constable.” Pitch-and-toss, incidentally, was a game of mixed skill and chance, played with coins, and was at one time illegal as a form of gambling, if played in the street: not as bad as picking pockets, no doubt, which in turn was not as bad as … etc., etc., until the argument comes to rest just short of mass murder.

Still, the defence is being made in this present instance by a researcher at Nottingham University, an institution which, though itself a user of animals in research (scoring a modest 17,924), does also accommodate the laboratories of the excellent Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments (FRAME). It therefore surely deserves a more considered reply than the Shaw quotation, and I shall try to give at least part of one.

Why, then, don’t anti-vivisectionists turn their attentions to the far greater suffering (numerically, certainly, and perhaps also in most other respects) endured by factory-farmed animals?

The first thing to say is that of course they do. I’ve used the word ‘turn’ to highlight the sleight of hand in the argument; most, if not all, anti-vivisectionists can and do have both wrongs clearly in view concurrently, as well as a whole range of others. It’s all one subject, though individuals and organisations may specialize within it: hence the one collective term by which Peter Singer identified it in the first sentence of Animal Liberation in 1975, “the tyranny of human over non-human animals”.

But vivisection is, besides, bound in with factory farming in a more particular and unpleasant way. The move from husbandry to mass-processing of farm-animals has been made possible at every stage by scientific research, including biomedical research. (Burdon Sanderson himself devoted his early vivisectional research to disease in cattle.) When Ruth Harrison first showed the public what was happening on Britain’s farms, in her book Animal Machines (1964), she made this fact very clear: “every batch of animals reaching market is a sequel to another experiment or part of an experiment.” The livestock farm and its farmer were being made dependants of the laboratory and the scientist. How far this has gone since then can be read in any issue of Farmers Weekly.

For even while Ruth Harrison was publicizing the wretched effects of this development, other voices were busily promoting it. One such was a 1965 volume in the ‘Teach Yourself’ series (of all innocent publishing brands), entitled Modern Poultry Keeping. The word ‘keeping’ has an old-fashioned suggestion of husbandry about it, but any readers of this book foolish enough to be expecting to teach themselves a job in agreeably rural surroundings, perhaps amateurishly collecting eggs in a basket, like the wholesome woman on the old Ovaltine tins, were indignantly corrected. It was now a “highly specialized business calling for men [N.B.] with a wide technical knowledge”. Raising table-poultry, for instance, “consists wholly in rearing birds that will carry the maximum amount of flesh in the shortest possible time, at the lowest cost.” You need maths, biology, and a good grounding in what the book calls “light engineering” to get that right – or someone else does, to get it right for you. And of course that “technical knowledge” also includes knowledge of the pharmacopoeia: oestrogen pellets to ‘caponize’ the would-be cockerels, antibiotics against disease, and so on.

Then there’s animal behaviour. The Nottingham scientist specifies this in his comment, reasonably enough, as one of the things that cannot be studied without the use of real animals, and indeed it’s been responsible for some of the most cruel and shameful scenes in laboratory history. Another book contemporary with Animal Machines, P. L. Broadhurst’s Science of Animal Behaviour (1963), reviewed some of these scenes, but not apologetically; on the contrary, the author took the view that the “exploitation in the service of man of the behavioural resources of animals has  cowhardly begun.” In particular he looked forward to a time when the “pitifully small” role so far played by animals in food-production would be greatly expanded, using the knowledge gained in the laboratory of what they can be induced or compelled to do: not just to make food out of themselves at minimum expense, that is, but also to pick fruit or mind machinery, or more generally to be what his book, with naïve but untouching enthusiasm, calls “slave labour”.

So much for agriculture as envisioned from the laboratory. That things on the farm are only as bad as they are, and not as they might have been (and may yet be), can at least partly be attributed to the ‘curbing’ of such dreams at source. It’s very much harder to correct them once they’ve become real.

*     *     *

The man usually regarded as the founder of experimental physiology, the Frenchman Claude Bernard – a bust of whom stood on our own Burdon Sanderson’s mantelpiece in Oxford – proudly described and championed his science’s characterizing spirit as “éminemment conquérant et dominateur”. That spirit of tyranny was glaringly evident in Bernard’s own work, so much so that one of his assistants subsequently wrote, “I cry off, and am prepared to see not only science, but even mankind, perish rather than have recourse to such means of saving it.” Unfortunately Bernard’s version of the scientific spirit has survived through more than 150 years of vivisection right up to the hideous attempts of recent years at xeno-transplantation and even (not in the U.K.) the transplanting of animal heads. It’s not only farming which is pervertable by science such as this. No doubt biomedical research has produced valuable knowledge and great benefits. But some of that research, both the valuable and even more tragically the worthless, has been at a cost to animal lives, and to human decency, which no real or speculative benefit to ourselves should have been allowed to justify. So far from leaving such research to itself for a while, it’s our duty to all animals, including ourselves, to do continuously everything we can to curb it.


[Quotations: G. B. Shaw from Shaw on Vivisection, ed. Bowker, 1949, p.35; Animal Machines, 2013 (2nd edition), pp.37-8; J. I. Portsmouth, Modern Poultry Keeping, pp.2 & 5; Science of Animal Behaviour, p.132 & foreword; Claude Bernard and George Hoggan quoted in John Vyvyan, In Pity and in Anger, 1988, pp.46 & 77]