U.K. Policy Memo Aims to Mitigate Use of Animals for Research

In early February, the British government released a policy memo encouraging a reduction in the use of animals for research purposes. The memo, Working to Reduce the Use of Animals in Scientific Research, is part of an ongoing effort to address the increasing usage of animals for research in the United Kingdom [1]. The official effort began in 2010 after studies revealed an increase of animal experiments in the U.K. since the early 2000’s. According to the most recent statistics, U.K. scientists conducted over 4.11 million experiments on animals in 2012, an 8% increase from 2011 [2].

Mark Walport, chief scientific adviser for the British government, stated that the increase in animal experiments derives mostly from an increase in the breeding of genetically-modified animals [3]. Each birth is counted as a procedure. The number of experiments excluding genetically modified animals remained around 2 million for the last decade. In accordance with the 1988 Protection of Animals Act, the majority of animals used were bred specifically for research purposes. The most common animals used in laboratories are mice, rats and fish, respectively.

Many in the scientific community argue that animal testing provides instrumental discoveries and innovations in many disciplines, particularly health science [4]. Additionally, results deriving from animal testing—such as new cancer treatments, vaccines and more—not only benefit humans; they can benefit animals as well. The British government’s focus, therefore, has not been to completely eliminate the use of animals in scientific research, but rather to minimize the unnecessary use of animals. This has become known as the “3Rs” concept of research ethics. As the memo outlines, the British government is supportive of practices in which, “Animals are replaced with non-animal alternatives wherever possible; that the number of animals used is reduced to the minimum needed to achieve the results sought; and that, for those animals which must be used, procedures are refined as much as possible to minimize their suffering.” [1]

Suggested recommendations also include enhancing data sharing between animal researchers to prevent duplication of studies and training laboratory inspectors to promote the “3Rs” concept to researchers. The government has also emphasized its commitment to greater transparency on the use of animals for research purposes.

Nevertheless, the lack of strong enforcement mechanisms or legal measures cited in the policy memo has disappointed animal rights groups and activists. The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection declared it, “a missed opportunity for the Government to make meaningful and lasting change for the millions of animals suffering in UK laboratories” [2]; the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments was dissatisfied as the memo does not describe any specific, quantitative goals for the reduction of animal testing [3]. The government will, however, issue a progress report in 12 months and at regular intervals afterward.

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/277942/bis-14-589-working-to-reduce-the-use-of_animals-in-research.pdf
[2] http://news.sciencemag.org/europe/2014/02/u.k.-scientists-welcome-new-policy-animal-research
[3] http://www.nature.com/news/uk-absolutely-committed-to-reducing-animals-used-in-research-1.14688 
[4] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-17369323

This article is part of the Winter 2014 issue of Professional Ethics Report (PER). PER, which has been in publication since 1988, reports on news and events, programs and activities, and resources related to professional ethics issues, with a particular focus on those professions whose members are engaged in scientific research and its applications.