With the season of Advent comes the annual awards ceremony of the Concordat on Openness, celebrating another year of the animal-research community’s keen presence in the limelight of its own publicity. Speeches, awards, thanks, mutual congratulation, promises of even greater things in the future: there’s something of the school prize-day about it all, as I’ve commented before. But if these events, and therefore the blog-posts that have been shadowing them, do seem somewhat repetitious, it’s not because things are standing still.
The Concordat, now in its fifth year, continues to grow: there are now 122 signed-up institutions. All of them are required to make online statements of policy about the work that they do or fund others to do; they are urged, in addition, to provide figures and further details of the work, preferably with case studies, videos, virtual tours of laboratories, and so on, with the result that one could now fidget away whole hours online, viewing what animal research institutions are happy for others to know about their activities. And real-life “outreach” likewise proliferates, with open days, staff and family tours, school visits, and work placements, all tending to “embed” (this year’s favourite Concordat word) the institutions in their communities. Remember that a few years ago this sort of work was nearly invisible, except when it burst out as scandals. Now it simply comes at you with a will: advent indeed.
Nor evidently is the work itself, as supported by all this public relations effort, likely to diminish significantly any time soon. That’s by no means part of the Concordat’s purpose, although all signatories have to show commitment to the talismanic 3Rs (reduction, refinement, replacement). By way of illustration, the most recent batch of animal-research statistics – from Northern Ireland, which submits its numbers separately from Great Britain – shows a sprightly upwardness. Although its total of ‘animal procedures’ for 2018 (28,790) wouldn’t get it into the same league as the ‘Top Ten’ (that’s what Understanding Animal Research calls the ten UK universities which score the most procedures), still it represents an increase of 16.3% over the 2017 number, which itself had shown a rise of 11.4% over the year before that. Queen’s University Belfast, a Concordat signatory, accounted for over half that 2018 total. In fact, since the Concordat was formally launched in 2014, the numbers of procedures at Queen’s has risen by 48%.
Of course, I didn’t have to pry out these numbers; they’re on the university’s own web-site or on UAR’s. In fact the UAR’s news report on Northern Ireland’s numbers in 2018 was plainly and pre-emptively headed ‘Increase in Animal Research in Northern Ireland’. The fact was neither hidden nor apologised for; a much more sophisticated public relations policy than that is now in use. In fact the policy was already implied in the change of name in 2008 from the old ‘Research Defence Society’ (founded exactly one hundred years earlier) to ‘Understanding Animal Research’. As the Concordat web-site tells some of its more reluctant signatories, “We need to shout about why we do what we do.”
And they might indeed learn how to shout from the example of this year’s winner of the Concordat’s ‘Website or Use of New Media’ award: Reading University. Back in July, Reading introduced its annual research statistics with a story inviting readers to “Name our life-saving baby llama”. Prudently fending off in advance unsuitable or uncooperative suggestions, the university offered the witty and topical choice “Jeremy or Boris?” (because – don’t forget – animal research is serious, but it’s also fun.) Apparently, perhaps one must now also say ironically, ‘Jeremy’ won. That result is now hidden away in university news stories of the moment (and it did take me a while to find), but the birth of the “cute baby llama” (UAR’s phrase) into its animal-research heritage still occupies a prominent page of its own: no point in wasting a good stunt.
Meanwhile elsewhere in its animal research pages, under the heading ‘Further Improvements’, Reading University announces progress on “a new state-of-the-art Health and Life Sciences Building”, with a “high-specification biological resource unit” for its animal accommodation and research. Liberated by the Concordat spirit of show-and-tell from the secretive knots which poor Oxford University tied itself in when it was planning its equivalent facility less than fifteen years ago, Reading makes its own proud news story of the project. Yes, a very great change is occurring.
And all this is not exactly boasting; it’s just confidently making known. Back in 2015 the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics published a report on vivisection titled Normalizing the Unthinkable. Perhaps ‘unthinkable’ was a curious word to select for a practice which has been institutionalized in the UK for well over 150 years (and the phrase was in fact borrowed from a 1980s article about atomic weaponry), but yes, ‘normalizing’ is the word we want. The Oxford Centre’s report didn’t have the Concordat in mind: the project was hardly underway at that time, and is not mentioned. But that’s what the Concordat is doing: making animal research familiar and accepted, emptying it of surprises, in short making a “non-story” of it (the phrase was used in last year’s Concordat Annual Report) – except of course where the story is about a ‘medical break-through’.
That’s surely why the Concordat authorities habitually urge signatories to include in their publicity some account of the real ‘costs’ to animals of their research. Every year, the Concordat issues a report of the year’s progress, and every year this matter of declaring costs in animal suffering is noted as a point of difficulty, one that’s “challenging for many signatories”. It’s understandable (so this year’s report concedes) that they should be chary of “providing any information that might show their research or institution in a negative light” [p.17]. But failing to do so not only makes all the talk about openness fraudulent, it also tucks away exactly the sort of information which can subsequently be found and embarrassingly sensationalized by undercover reporters, whistle-blowers, or other dissenting parties.
The Concordat does not anywhere imply, as a way of dealing with this problem, that research which is likely to entail severe suffering to the animals might simply be abjured. And after all, one doesn’t have to show it in pictures or videos, because fortunately it was discovered during the ‘Public Dialogue’ which preceded and guided the devising of the Concordat that lay people “did not want to see graphic or shocking images” . One just has to get the news out first, and thereby own it; the key word always is “proactive”. Members of the Concordat sign up to this principle of pre-emptive publicity as one of their promises, and the happy result is noted in the report: “Fewer reactive communications on the use of animals in research, due to more information proactively in the public domain.” 
So the “lasting change” which the Concordat urges upon its signatories is not in the animal research itself: the aim is “to change the way that everyone thinks about animal research” [my italics]. Nor is this just a way of keeping things as they are. It is that, certainly, and Reading University’s case study of research on dairy cattle is wholly characteristic in that respect: noting that “emissions from the dairy industry . . . have a significant negative impact on the environment”, the university is apparently “leading the way in understanding how our dairy industry can play its part in tackling climate change.” “our”, you see; we’ve got the industry, whether you like it or not, so let’s see how its breeding and feeding practices, already the product of decades of pitiless research, can be improved so that a bit less damage is caused by it.
But in fact the Concordat must, if successful, provide a positive boost for animal research. And it has already been remarkably successful: not perhaps so far in persuading the public – “signatories do not feel that there is evidence of impacts beyond the research sector at this time”, the report says – but certainly in raising the status of animal research professionally. Signatories report “increased profile of animal facilities within their establishments, leading to greater investment . . . ” That new building at Reading University, with its “high-specification biological resource unit”, is one such investment. There will surely be more. Queen’s Belfast has got to put all those extra animals somewhere, for instance, and these days it can be somewhere in plain view. That’s where it’s going to be least conspicuous.
Notes and references:
The Concordat on Openness on Animal Research Awards event on 3 December can be viewed here: http://concordatopenness.org.uk/openness-awards-2019. Or there’s a text of the programme here: http://concordatopenness.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Openness-Awards-2019-Programme.pdf.
Page numbers in square brackets refer to the 2019 Annual Report, which can be read here: http://concordatopenness.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Concordat-Report-2019.pdf.
Other quotations, numbers, etc., come from the web-sites of the Concordat, UAR, or Reading University. The quotation about changing the way that “everyone thinks about animal research” is part of an introduction to a new category of exemplary Concordat signatory: ‘Leaders in Openness’.
Accounts of Concordat public relations in previous years appeared in this blog on 11 December 2018, 18 December 2017, and 18 December 2016.
The Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics report Normalizing the Unthinkable was re-published, together with essays by various hands, as The Ethical Case against Animal Experiments, ed. Andrew Linzey and Clair Linzey, University of Illinois Press, 2018. The original report was reviewed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2015/08/01/the-complete-vivisector/