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/

 

 

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Advent, PR-style

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 Laboratory, South Parks Road.JPGinitiatives, 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” [11]; 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” [36], with “balanced information, acknowledging harms as well as benefits of animal research” [10]. It admits, however, that to do so constitutes “a challenging area for signatories” [1]. 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” [37]. 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 [6].

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” [45]. 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.

 

 

Come See Our Worlds

A new public relations venture from Understanding Animal Research (UAR) provides ‘360° digital tours’ of four animal research laboratories in the U.K. One of them is Oxford University. Two others – MRC Harwell and the Pirbright Institute – have likewise featured in this blog before. The fourth is Bristol University, where the main event shown is heart surgery being pioneered on a pig.

The tours consist of all-round views, navigable and magnifiable, of different rooms and activities (60 such views in all), with brief explanatory texts and some video clips (35 of these, up to six minutes in length). The model for this venture seems to have been an unidentified primate facility presented online in 2015 by France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, but these new tours are quite a lot more sophisticated. In fact technically it’s a remarkable show, very smoothly done, almost mesmerizingly so. Nor is it crudely assertive or defensive. Animal care staff show what they’re doing with convincing sympathy; scientists in casual clothes speak with reassuring authority about important work. Such as it is, you can’t fault it.

No doubt it’s pleasant for them to talk about how well they care for animals, and to show the animals enjoying their strange stylized and minimalist habitats, if that’s what the animals are doing (I can’t tell). Talking about the suffering and death is harder, and there’s accordingly much less of that. The suffering, in fact, is hardly touched on at all, except as something conscientiously minimised; there’s nothing to indicate, for instance, why the U.K. law should bother with a ‘severe’ category for experiments. The killing is necessarily mentioned from time to time, and it’s done with some uneasiness, not so much visible (though I think it is noticeable) as verbal – that is, in the resort to various genteelisms. The word ‘kill’ is used once only that I heard; otherwise it’s ‘euthanize’ and its strange variant ‘euthanaze’, or a selection of circumlocutions, such as ‘put to sleep as at the vet’s’ (just like our own pets, in fact), ‘culled at the end of their lives’ (the ingeniously evasive formula pioneered at Oxford University: see post for 28 October 2015), or, the most scrupulously oblique of all, “How long they stay with us depends on … etc.”

These are fairly transparent euphemisms; we know well what’s meant. Some of the strictly scientific narratives contain terms which more seriously cloud the meaning: for instance, in accounts of neurosurgery on (or, more companionably, “with”) monkeys at Oxford, there is talk about “manipulation”, of the need to “intervene in their brain and change a little part of it”, and of injecting “a very small amount [of what?] precisely into the brain”. Here, most of us don’t know what’s being meant, and are left to guess.

UAR’s news-piece about these tours says “Watch the videos to see technicians talking about how they look after their animals and to find out from scientists why animals are being used.” You notice what’s missing: the middle term in this scene, what really happens to the animals in between the being looked after in caring confinements (we see a lot of this) and the goal or “why” of it all. The “why”, as spoken of in these tours, is of course not product-testing or mere knowledge-garnering, but the feared sicknesses of affluent societies or ailments which affect children. So if we aren’t adequately reassured by the scenes of animal comfort at the one end, at least our concern about the middle part will be frightened away by mention of those natural cruelties against us which are about to be cured by these means.

But of course the whole show must itself be a sort of euphemism. Its aim is indeed to ‘speak well’ of its subject, and to miss out what can’t be spoken well of. And even if the tours were altogether impartial, mere good taste would steer them away from anything unpleasant to see, particularly because one of their declared aims is to be of use to school students as young as eleven (so there’s a preliminary warning about the pig surgery). You can navigate all those rooms, then, without stumbling upon anything disagreeable like the fridge for animal corpses pictured elsewhere in this blog (“For dead animals. Please put in plastic bags.”). But some such equipment must be on the premises somewhere, presumably in rooms shown blank on the plans provided. At MRC Harwell, for instance, I calculate from inadequate evidence that mice must be dispatched on the premises at a rate of about one per minute. That amounts to a fair proportion of the work. It ought to be shown, in good taste or not.

At about the same time that this set of laboratory tours was put online by UAR, its equivalent organisation in the U.S.A., Americans for Medical Progress, put up their version, entitled Come See Our World. As the cheery showbooth-style title suggests, this is much more blatantly a public relations push, and what it intends to accomplish is plainly stated in brand-manager’s terms: “to replace outdated, inaccurate images of animal research with current accurate views.”

With this in mind, an album of photographic “views” of contented animals, many of them with pet names, has been assembled, with brief texts explaining their role in research, and some links to further details. The animals are grouped by species. Among the felines, there’s ‘Sadie the Research Cat’, the kitten Midnight (“likes to kiss her special person”), and Sophie, who kindly “helps” researchers study heart failure. Sadie, of the sinister title, is shown sitting on a sort of metal-framed shelf behind bars. Among the dogs, Blake is enjoying a bathe in a paddling pool. ‘Beagle playing with Kong’ shows a dog in a cage with a wire grille floor. Among the monkeys, there’s ‘Mom and baby rhesus on hammock’, in a grim tiled room.

I would upload one or two of the views here, but they’re only made available to those who support the “mission of the Come See Our World project”. This mission, in so far as it goes beyond replacing one set of images with another, is evidently to persuade the public that the patent kindness and sound judgement of scientists is quite sufficient to ensure good practice, with no further intervention from the law, still less from ill-informed public indignation. As one professor of psychology recently said, “each scientist has to make his or her own moral decision”. This dubious assertion (even in the U.S.A. there are some external controls over what researchers may do) was made by Richard Davidson, with reference to the work presently being done in his own department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison by Ned Kalin. Dr Kalin’s “own moral decision” is that it’s quite all right to take new-born monkeys away from their mothers, in order to study anxiety by inducing it in them. For many years he has been building upon the research notoriously done in this line by Harry Harlow (see the post for 15 July 2015, ‘How Not to Treat Babies’). In fact the photo of the two rhesus monkeys with their ugly modernistic hammock comes from that same university. So may God help that ‘Mom and baby’ and all the others they represent!

I don’t know whether Kalin’s work is mentioned in Come See Our World; I can’t find it anywhere. The picture of ‘Mom and baby’ has a text about the life-cycle of the species – a sad irrelevance here, I would have thought – and a list of research areas, but nothing more particular. At any rate, the site is not apologetic about the use of the various monkey species. In fact, those “outdated, inaccurate images”, which apparently need replacing in you or me, turn out to constitute, when rightly understood, something to be proud of, for we’re told that “Nonhuman primates have a rich history of contributing to significant medical advances.” “rich history”! So speaks the ad-man.

It’s hard to know what one has really learnt from these tours, since there’s no knowing about what one hasn’t been shown. (The French tour seems to have been filmed on a general holiday: I only spotted one member of staff and, more puzzlingly, one animal, a solitary monkey somewhere in a whole cage-scape of bars.) The institutions themselves, which thus ration the knowledge, must know it all, however; perhaps one merit of these exercises in publicity might therefore be to draw their attention to any differences which exist between what they’re doing and what they wish the public to suppose that they’re doing.

 

Notes and References:

The U.K. laboratory tours are online at http://www.labanimaltour.org/. Come See Our World is at https://www.comeseeourworld.org/. The French tour (which I couldn’t get to work properly) is at http://visite-animalerie.cnrs.fr/#/accueil/

MRC Harwell is featured in this blog at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/07/03/earth-born-companions/, and the Pirbright Institute at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/08/14/the-greenwich-goat/

An account of Dr Kalin’s proposal, and its successful progress through his university’s ethics committee, appeared in the Wisconsin journal Isthmus for 31 July 2014, and can be read here: http://host.madison.com/ct/news/local/health_med_fit/university-of-wisconsin-renews-controversial-maternal-deprivation-research-on-monkeys/article_993e9566-172f-11e4-9063-001a4bcf887a.html. Kalin subsequently decided, for purely scientific reasons as he insisted, not to take the new-born monkeys away from their mothers. Otherwise, the research goes ahead as intended.