The Many and the One

The Home Office has now published statistics for the animal research done in Great Britain during 2017 (not the UK, because Northern Ireland publishes its own modest contribution to the scene separately).

Very little has changed since 2016 for these statistics to record (see the chart below), but there’s a notable innovation in the look of them. There are now three or four distinct colours, instead of the old black, white, and grey; the former tables and columns have been supplemented with graphs of zig-zagging lines in tonic blues; helpful comment and explanation appear in tinted text-boxes. In short the document has been designed to engage and even impress the reader, rather than merely to provide, with implicit apology, unwelcome information. This suggests the influence, perhaps even the direct advice, of Understanding Animal Research and its PR project, the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research. And UAR’s director, Wendy Jarrett, makes a comment on the statistics which reflects this new way of seeing them: not as a regretted cost, certainly not as a “necessary evil” (when was that phrase last used?), but as an index of achievement:

Animal research continues to play a vital part in the development of modern treatments and medicines. While the numbers of procedures may vary from year to year, we should be proud of the important contribution that the UK makes to scientific and medical advancement worldwide.

Here, anyway, is VERO’s summary of the numbers and species, alongside those of 2016, with some comments to follow:

 Species  Number used in 2016  Number used in 2017
 Mice   2,866,435    2,781,685
 Fish   535,819    514,059
 Rats   249,389    241,544
 Domestic fowl   139,860    125,280
 Sheep    48,095    47,499
 Guinea Pigs    26,186    22,560
 Horses    8,948    10,600
 Rabbits    15,431    10,362
 Dogs    4,932    2,496
 Non-human primates    3,569    2,215
 Other species    38,059    31,073
 Total:    3,936,723    3,789,373

Direction of travel:

For the second year in a row, there has been a welcome fall in the total number of animals used, this time a fall of slightly less than 4%. Nothing can be deduced from this; as the Home Office puts it “any clear trend for recent years is as yet difficult to determine.” However, there is a very clear trend for the century so far: a rise of nearly 45% since 2001’s 2.62 million. Nor is the prospect good. If the UK were to leave the European Union without making terms to remain a partner in REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and restriction of Chemicals – a bad enough system already), it might have to create its own testing regime, duplicating what is done collaboratively in the rest of the EU. Or rather, it apparently would have to. A government minister truculently told a House of Lords committee  earlier this month, when asked about this possible secession from REACH, “if that required animal testing, that would require animal testing.”

The term ‘procedure’:

Viewing the Home Office’s annual pageantry of numbers, so eloquent of orderly record-keeping and nothing if not factual, the dazzled reader must keep in mind that the basic unit, the regulated ‘procedure’, is itself an unknown quantity. A helpful hint to this effect is provided in one of those text-boxes, where ‘procedures’ in the plural is defined in the singular, a confusion of number which characterizes all official documents when dealing with this point, for very good reason. More plainly indicative, a GM animal, whose bringing into life rightly constitutes a procedure, may be required to do nothing ‘regulated’ again, or may be involved in years of experimentation: either way the history will count as one procedure.

Or those horses: you’ll notice that they’re one of the few species in greater demand this last year. Mainly, it seems, they’re made to yield blood products for use in medical diagnosis and other scientific analysis. What: just the once each? Of course not: it’s really their career, and that would be the right term for what is asked of all these animals. Some animals may eventually retire, as perhaps the horses do: much more commonly, the end of their part in the project coincides with the end of their life. (This is something which the statistics ought to record, but in fact they say nothing about death.) Either way, the term ‘procedure’, with its suggestion of a single experience, is a misleading fiction, and therefore so are all these numbers.

Classifying the pain:

Actually the statistics do say something about death. Being found dead in your cage after a ‘procedure’ is one of the indicators for a ‘severe’ classification, we’re told. Others include needing help to eat and drink (to survive, in short). It may be that the statistics for each of the four main levels of suffering – sub-threshold, mild, moderate, severe – really are informative. They seem to change very little from year to year (the Home Office notices this), but I don’t know what that implies.

About 5% of procedures (not including GM breeding) are said to have imposed ‘severe’ suffering on the animals involved (95,025 of them) during 2017. So-called ‘regulatory testing’ (tests required by law in the EU or the UK, or beyond) takes a disproportionately high part in this category. Of its 505,000 or so procedures, 10% or more were considered severe. That’s no surprise, since this class of work includes toxicity-testing (195,000 procedures), and the Home Office statistics show that for this purpose the LD50 and LC50 tests – identifying the Lethal Dose or Lethal Concentration that kills half the animals – are still in use.

Numbers and individuals:

How much does anyone really learn from these numbers? No doubt they provide a rough knowledge of the scale of animal research, and which species and which purposes are tending upward and which down. But it is rough knowledge. Not just the basic term ‘procedure’ is opaque: the classifications of research are uninformative. Thus, one cat, of the 198 cats dealt with in 2017 (190 in 2016), suffered pain in the category ‘severe’. The purpose of the research in question was ‘animal diseases and disorders’. That’s all that there’s space to tell us. And how dependable even that much is may be deduced from the ‘Revisions’ to previous years’ statistics attached at the end. Here we find, for instance, that 5,930 sheep and 1700 horses which had appeared under ‘protection of the environment’ (itself a sinister enough category) were in fact engaged in ‘routine production – blood products’. It’s not so much that a mistake has been made – easily enough done in the stress of all this bureaucracy. More sobering is how little an outsider can make of the difference.

Animal protection groups quite reasonably tend to call the annual statistics ‘shocking’. I would say instead ‘stupefying’. Seeing these great phalanxes of animals moved around in their graphs, columns, tables, and other formations simply dulls the imagination. In fact, to re-iterate other posts in this blog (and the whole annual performance is after all a wretched re-iteration), these statistics are a variety of euphemism. Certainly they’re much better than secrecy, but they take the mind off the subject of individual suffering, which is the one thing that matters. Just occasionally, in the smaller numbers, momentary illuminations are offered as to what we’re really seeing: that one cat, for instance, needing help to eat or drink, suffering pains which “a person would find difficult to tolerate” (Home Office guidance on the ‘severe’ category), or perhaps being found mercifully dead in the cage.

By way of final re-iteration, I shall re-append the picture of the Oxford University OU primatemacaque monkey: suggested caption, ‘Waiting for the End’.

 

Notes and references:

The Home Office’s publication, Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals, Great Britain 2017 can be read here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/724611/annual-statistics-scientific-procedures-living-animals-2017.pdf

I should add that a much more informative annual account of animal research is provided in the Non-Technical Summaries (i.e. of proposed research), also published by the Home Office. There is more about the NTS in the VERO blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/01/15/if-you-poison-us-do-we-not-die/

Wendy Jarrett’s comment, and Understanding Animal Research’s response in general, can be read on their web-site here: http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/communications-media/animal-research-numbers-in-2017/

The government minister who spoke to the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee was Therese Coffey MP, at a session on 18 July of this year.

The complete Home Office guidance to ‘severity’ is provided in Advisory notes on recording and reporting the actual severity of regulated procedures, 2014, especially pp.12-13.

 

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Home Office statistics: numbers, words, and euphemisms

The Home Office has now published its statistical report on the animal research done in Great Britain (i.e. omitting Northern Ireland) during 2015. It shows that 4.14 million ‘procedures’ were completed last year. This is the largest number ever recorded under the 1986 Act, and tends to confirm that the promising drop in the numbers during 2014 (3.87 million) was the result of under-reporting in that year, rather than a sudden change of direction. The new system had just been introduced, whereby the research projects are counted when they finish rather than when they begin, and not everyone seems to have understood it. So the Home Office advises that the new figures should be compared with 2013 rather than 2014 (for VERO’s comment on the 2014 figures, see http://www.vero.org.uk/events.asp.). In that case, there has been a slight increase of 1% or 21 thousand in these ‘procedures’. This in turn means that the real numbers have been rising in every year since 2001, except 2009, which came after a notable jump the year before. During this whole period, the numbers have increased by about 58%.

This new Home Office report makes an exhaustive summary of every countable aspect of the nation’s work as vivisector in 2015. Its own two-page précis can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/538556/scientific-procedures-living-animals-2015snr.pdf. There are other useful and more critical summaries to be found on the web-sites of the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments and Cruelty Free International. These notice, for instance, the rise in numbers of primates used in research (from 3,220 to 3,600), and the continuing use of dogs in toxicology studies, one of the most unpleasant areas of research. There’s also a review on the web-site of Understanding Animal Research, which is the promotional arm of the animal research industry. At the end of it the Chief Executive, Dr Wendy Jarrett, is quoted as saying “today’s statistics will help people to find out more about the reality of animal research in the 21st century.”

Yes, on the face of it the statistics ought to help in that way, but I doubt that they will help much. Quite apart from the varying interpretations which statistics notoriously allow, they address a part of the mind (the numerate) which is completely unrelated to the part where ethics or empathy live. What can one feel about this great torrent of numbers? It’s a crowd scene with no foreground. Every now and then, a detail will catch the dazzled attention. For instance, under the category ‘regulatory testing’ (p.49), the astonishing fact emerges that the LD50 and LC50 tests (= the Lethal Dose or Lethal Concentration that kills 50% of the test animals) are still in use. These true products of the mind as computer, giving a specious accuracy to toxicology tests at the cost of human decency, accounted for 8898 animals in 2015 (mice, rats, and fish).

Nearby, now that one’s eye is adjusted to such detail, it seems that something very like the Draize test (listed as “eye irritation/corrosion”) also survives: 173 rabbits went that way. But what: only 173? In most of the categories, that number would simply have disappeared in the ‘rounding down’ of untidy decimals (see User Guide to Annual Statistics, pp.9-10). On the other hand, you’d certainly hate to see the test done to a rabbit you knew, and you’d be quite properly liable to prosecution for cruelty if you did it yourself. And by the way, that’s a useful reminder that the Home Office is wrong to define the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act in its preamble as “an animal protection measure” (p.5): the Act is also, and much more successfully, an animal-user’s protection measure.

Anyway, such details as the ones mentioned are generally invisible in the glare of the huge numbers. The whole dazzling parade of facts, so competently put together by the Home Office’s statisticians, is therefore a kind of euphemism, tending as much to hide as to show the “reality of animal research in the 21st century”.

A rather more informative source, and a necessary complement to the Annual Statistics, are the ‘non-technical summaries’ of proposed research which the Home Office also publishes (at https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/animal-research-and-testing). There you can see the research in detail, admittedly as presented by its partisans, but in the format required by the Home Office, with answers to questions about purpose, method, the 3Rs, and so on. The animals appear in more comprehensible numbers (150 pigs, 200 chickens), and their kind is more accurately identified (crows, rainbow trout, opossums, voles). What happens to them is more or less picturable, and the scene can be bloody and squalid, even where no suffering is involved: “In parallel to in vivo experiments, we will also carry out in vitro experiments using sheep uteri and ovaries collected from an abattoir” [God, what have we become?]. You get some idea of how scientists may have judged the pain levels which are later to be recorded in the statistics: “The expected adverse effects are the development of skin wounds, inflammation and cancer. In most cases the severity will be mild. However, in some situations, such as tumour development, the severity will be moderate.” [Excellent! Cancer is evidently not as bad as we feared.]

And now, with these and other Home Office publications about animal research to hand, you begin to realize that the word ‘procedure’, the key word in the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA) and the one on which you have to rely if the statistics are to make any sense, is itself a euphemism. Having myself been misled by this word, I shall try to show what’s wrong with it.

For the purposes of the Act, a “regulated procedure” is defined (see the User Guide, p.10) as “any procedure applied to a protected animal for an experimental or other scientific purpose, or for any educational purpose, that may have the effect of causing an animal pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm equivalent to, or higher than, that caused by the introduction of a needle in accordance with good veterinary practice.” The breeding of a genetically altered (GA) animal is quite properly counted as one such procedure under the Act, and we’re told in the 2-page summary that about half of those 4.14 million procedures “related to the creation/breeding of genetically altered animals that were not used in further procedures.” That seems to make good sense. The breeding would be one procedure. Those GA animals for whom that turned out not to be a sufficient contribution to science would become part of other (“further”) procedures, counted as such.

But in fact we know that this isn’t what’s being done. It would mean that there’d be many more procedures than animals in the total count, whereas we’re specifically told that the two numbers are always more or less the same, and that in the rare cases where the number of procedures is higher than the number of animals used “this is due to a re-use of animals” (User Guide, p.9). ‘Re-use’ is a term always meaning ‘used in a different project of research’, which is actually by no means a common practice. And for this purpose, GA breeding apparently doesn’t count as a different project. So the real situation is this: animals which have undergone the GA procedure, and are then used in “further procedures”, still count for only one procedure each.

All right, but even apart from the GA question, ‘procedure’ has a very elastic meaning, which seems to include its own plural. It may just mean an injection, such as the one which is the model for what minimally constitutes a regulated procedure as defined in the Act. On the other hand, it can mean a whole “series of regulated procedures”: that’s the phrase which the Home Office Use, Keeping Alive, and Re-use Advice Note (p.9) uses when reviewing the experience of an animal during one research project, and advising on its suitability for ‘re-use’. The User Guide explains (also p.9): “Each procedure (which may consist of several stages) for a given purpose on an animal is counted as one returnable procedure.” ‘Procedure’, it emerges, is a collective noun, but what exactly it may have collected in any particular instance there’s no way at all of discovering from the statistics.

I don’t know whether I’ve been able to make things clear; probably not, because this key-word in ASPA is not used clearly and consistently even in the official documentation. To summarise, then. A ‘procedure’ is an animal’s whole career of procedures within one research project. If it’s a GA animal, that career will include the procedure which brought it into being, and may or may not include others. In short ‘procedure’ is a term so elastic as to be almost meaningless. The number 4.14 million, therefore, really means 4.14 million multiplied by an unknowable n.

This ambiguity must affect every aspect of the published statistics. For instance, the rule for deciding the painfulness or severity of a ‘procedure’ is that it should be put in the severest of the four classes (sub-threshold, mild, moderate, or severe) which it reaches at any point during the research. But you will see that the meaning of a severity class is itself obscured by the vagueness of the term ‘procedure’. A procedure classed as ‘severe’ may have been a brief torment constituting the whole of an animal’s part in modern science, or it may have entailed that ‘severe’ pain together with a succession of other ‘severe’ or ‘moderate’ or ‘mild’ interventions covering the full period of a research project. It makes a great difference to our understanding and (lest we forget) to the animal concerned, but the difference cannot be indicated in the Home Office statistics.

It’s no wonder, now I come to think of it, that Understanding Animal Research has been content to present the Home Office statistics on its web-site as the “reality” of animal research. In truth, they’re a mixture of understatement, euphemism, and unintelligibility. Despite all the varieties of show and tell that the animal research industry now agrees to, the essential secrecy remains. And I should say that outsiders will never really know what’s going on until we get the number of ‘procedures’ down to nought.

 

References:

For Oxford University’s part in the 2015 numbers, see ‘Multitudes, multitudes’ in this blog (posted 24 April).

The Home Office’s Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals, Great Britain 2015 can be seen at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/537708/scientific-procedures-living-animals-2015.pdf 

Its User Guide to Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals  is at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/538549/guide-animal-procedures.pdf

Use, Keeping Alive and Re-use (dated October 2015) is at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/470008/Use__Keeping_Alive_and_Re-use_Advice_Note.pdf .

Other references are to be found on the relevant web-sites.