Public Labs

The last Oxford University Gazette of the Michaelmas term included the annual report from the Animal Care and Ethical Review committee: 2000 or so words about animal research at the University, for the proper conduct of which that committee is responsible. There were, voluntarily published in this way for the first time, a few statistics. Thus, 222,436 animals were used in 2014, an increase of about 19% on the previous year (comparing unfavourably to the slight decrease nationally); 1211 personal licences to use animals have been in force during the year 2015, a number which also seems to be on the increase; and, to supervise that work over the  1 Lab Mansfield Rd DSC_0984 same period, the Home Office inspectors made 30 visits to the University’s various “animal facilities”.

Mainly, however, and rather oddly for an annual publication, the report was about regulations and management, things which don’t change much from year to year. This makes dull reading (who does read it, one wonders; but then, who reads this?). All the same, there’s a victory implied in it. The more laborious the bureaucracy presented in the report , the more thoroughly it affirms that a scientist is not a fit person to judge the ethics of his or her own work. The old appeals to the exceptional tender-heartedness of physiologists (see earlier post, ‘The Real Benjulia’) or to their professional dignity (“You are proposing that physiologists … shall be licensed and regulated like publicans and prostitutes”, one of them indignantly told the Royal Commission on the subject in 1876) have no force now, persist as they may (and do). And of course this bureaucracy, though most immediately the product of various commissions, reports, statutes, etc., which have cumulatively proposed and created it, is really the work of all those adversaries of vivisection who have battered at the practice for the last 150 years and more.

What happened recently at Imperial College London is a clear reminder of that fact, as also of the fact that the victory is incomplete, that no system is sloven-proof or even delinquent-proof, and that the only way to do such research ethically is to take the animals out of it altogether. The malpractices of various sorts at that institution, which the British Union Against Vivisection (as it was then called) recorded and made public in 2012-13, had been missed or accepted by the institution’s own ethical supervision, and by the Home Office inspectors. The BUAV exposé prompted an independent report (the Brown Report, December 2013), and out of that came the much more purposeful management of animal research which is already being boasted about on the new ICL web-site.

In fact this ICL web-site won the “highly commended prize” two or three weeks ago at the Annual Openness Awards, an evening of mutual congratulation for the various corporate members of the ‘Concordat on Openness on Animal Research’. Since most of the people involved in the bad old days at ICL are presumably still at work there, this suggests some very smart PR. And the Concordat itself turns out to be, as suspected when it was announced in 2013, essentially a PR project. That solemnly portentous word ‘Concordat’, with its grand sound and perfectly ordinary meaning, is itself a ripe product of the profession, and I only wish that we had access to a record of all the brain-storming that led up to its triumphant selection. Anyway, it’s difficult to trust the sort of openness which boasts of itself in this fashion. The test of its authenticity will be what happens to Section 24, the ‘secrecy clause’, of the 1986 Act, still apparently being reviewed by the government. If the members of the Concordat are willing to scrap it, that will certainly be done.

Back to the animal research web-sites. ICL’s has a noticeable resemblance to Oxford University’s. Is there one consultancy designing all such sites? As to the Oxford pages, these days they appear in the University web-site’s News and Events category – inexplicably, since they include no news or events, and in fact don’t seem to have altered significantly since 2011 (the date of the last animal numbers which they provide). There is one newish feature, however: a short film which shows some of the animals off-duty, and draws particular attention to the ‘enrichment’ of their homes – wood-shavings, plastic tubing, hiding-places, and so on. These things no doubt do represent, for the animals, a real improvement upon the wretched ‘standard’ cages with which generations of their captors had apparently been quite satisfied. But the ranks and stacks of these new custom-made dwelling-boxes shown in the film reminds one that for some people such changes are also good business, as indeed vivisection always has been. And even the scientists get a professional ride out of it, because enrichment itself has become a research topic.

In illustration of this last point, I shall conclude with two extracts from an article in the highly-regarded Comparative Medicine, a publication sponsored by the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science. The first extract identifies some of the effects of enrichment, and in doing so provides some insights into the way of life enjoyed by these animals, with or without the upgrade:

As an example of a behavioral study, a comparison of C57BL/6 and 129S6/SvEv mice found that housing in an enriched compared with a standard environment increased exploratory activity in the plus-maze test and reduced habituation in the locomotor activity test in C57BL6 mice, whereas 129S6/SvEv mice showed increased hot-plate latencies and reduced aggression. Furthermore, EE accentuated strain differences in the plus-maze, locomotor activity, hot plate, and forced swim tests, whereas strain differences in the plus-maze and resident-intruder tests were not retained across environments.

The second extract helpfully warns us against attaching too much importance to such improvements, and ends with an absolutely model euphemism. In fact, brief as it is, this is a really choice bit of scientific prose. Next time, perhaps, I shall do a proper critical appreciation of it.

However, animal wellbeing, as reflected by normal growth, development, and reproduction with low likelihood of injury, illness, distress, or maladaptive behavior, can exist even in housing situations in which the animal cannot perform its entire repertoire of species-appropriate behaviors, particularly if the animal will be maintained for a relatively short portion of its lifespan.  [see Comp Med. 2011 Aug; 61(4): 314–321]