The University of Oxford is one of seventy-two organisations to have signed a Concordat on Openness in Animal Research this week, pledging to provide greater transparency on how, why and when they use animals in research.
Signatories of the Concordat sign up to four commitments: “We will be clear about when, how and why we use animals in research; we will enhance our communications with the media and the public about our research using animals; we will be proactive in providing opportunities for the public to find out about research using animals; we will report on progress annually and share our experiences”.
At the same time, the University has launched a new programme studying the neurology of twenty macaque monkeys.
The project is funded by the Wellcome Trust, a co-signatory of the Concordat, and is one of the first to be conducted under the agreement. It will receive £4.95m over five years and it is a study of how the brain supports complex mental processes which will use MRI brain imaging in addition to more invasive procedures. In order to justify its use of primates, the University has committed itself to providing precise descriptions of the research and practical information about its potential benefits.
An article on the University website said, “The macaques will be housed in state-of-the-art facilities in the Biomedical Sciences Building, where they can express their natural behaviours – such as living in social groups, playing, climbing and foraging for food.”
Dr Paul Browne, a spokesperson from Speaking of Research, an organisation that aims to provide the public with accurate information about animal testing and its importance, told Cherwell, “The Concordat on Openness is a major step in encouraging institutions to be more open about the work they conduct, and builds on the substantial progress that institutions like Oxford University have already made towards this goal.
“Animal research is critical to many aspects of medical progress in the 21st century, and the research community must continue to work hard explaining what happens in animal facilities and why the public should support it.”
Some charities concerned with animal research are unhappy with the move. Michelle Thew, CEO of British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection said, “The BUAV has campaigned for greater transparency in animal research for many years so naturally welcomes any steps towards genuine openness. Effective scrutiny – parliamentary and public – of the way animal experiments are carried out and regulated is impossible under the current system.
“We are concerned, however, that genuine transparency is not what the recent Concordat on Animal Testing delivers. It is simply transparency on their terms with researchers having complete control over what the public gets to see.
“This is about human health as much as animal welfare and the public has a right to know. Apart from the terrible suffering of animals in laboratories, we all have a stake in ensuring that medical research is scientifically sound and that scarce research resources are wisely targeted.”
For most students, the news was a positive development. As one Classics undergraduate from Oriel remarked, “Greater transparency must be a good thing; it can only lead to better treatment and compassion towards animals. What I can’t understand is why it hasn’t been implemented before.”
Many remain unsatisfied with the developments, however. As a first-year at Trinity observed, “Yes, animal research undoubtedly leads to cures and developments in medicine and yes it’s true that I selfishly enjoy being a recipient of the improvements it has brought about.
“However such a justification still sits uncomfortably with me. It comes dangerously close to suggesting that all animals are merely instrumental for our own needs – what gives us the right to be the superior species? I know men who are definitely far less intelligent than monkeys.
“Research can only be conducted on animals where there is no other alternative. This is required by law and is strictly regulated by the Home Office. Where use of animals is essential, the University is committed to very high standards of animal welfare using the latest research methods. Almost all the animals used in Oxford research are mice.”
A spokesperson for the University commented, “Research on animals has contributed to almost every medical advance of the last century. Without animal research, medicine as we know it today wouldn’t exist.
The number of animals held by Oxford fluctuates regularly according to the studies taking place. As of January 2014, ninety-eight per cent of the animals kept at Oxford were mice or fish, with 52,886 and 23,165 specimens respectively. There were only twenty-three primates.