Last week, an animal rights group won the upper hand in its freedom of information request when the United Kingdom's Information Tribunal Court ruled on 11 November that Newcastle University must release the project licenses of macaque researchers there . Newcastle has not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling, but the university believes that releasing the information would break a U.K. animal experimentation law.
The animal rights group British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) first filed a freedom of information (FOI) request in 2008 for experiments by neuroscientist Alexander Thiele, who performs fMRI studies with macaques to study vision. Thiele's experiments involve restricting liquid intake by the animals before experiments, which is the aspect that BUAV objects to, in order to reward them for performing tasks with a fruit drink. The Newcastle researchers were targeted, BUAV Chief Executive Michelle Thew said in an e-mail, because Thiele had previously been denied a license to perform similar experiments in Germany, and turned down a professorship because of it . (In Germany, decisions of whether to grant an animal research license are made by a local political panel, whereas U.K. licenses are granted by the government's Home Office department.)
Thiele declined to comment on the battle with BUAV, but veterinarian Paul Flecknell at Newcastle, who is involved in macaque experiments there, says the licenses in question contain information about researchers' specific plans for experiments and methodology, and are required before a research grant could be given. The plans extend over several years. If your "best scientific ideas," which may not yet have been carried out, become public, Flecknell says, it could constitute a threat to intellectual property. Not only that, but the license application requires researchers to list things that could possibly go wrong; to animal extremists, he says, "it could be a catalog of potential disasters" and misused as propaganda, endangering researchers. The university's final objection, he says, is that releasing the information may violate a 1986 U.K. law known as the Animal Scientific Procedures Act (ASPA), which prohibits disclosure of information in project licenses to third parties.
In a statement, University College London neurophysiologist Roger Lemon, chair of the Policy Advisory Group of the pro-research advocacy organization Understanding Animal Research, says that the Newcastle group's research is "of the highest quality, and the group involved are also doing fundamental research into the relationship between functional MRI and 'invasive' recordings, which is critical to our ability to understand fMRI studies in people."
Lemon's statement added that UAR agrees with recent comments by Royal Society President Paul Nurse, who said that animal rights activists were abusing FOI "to identify scientists carrying out studies involving the use of laboratory animals. 'It never occurred to me that it could be used as a tool for intimidation, which I think it is,' " Nurse told The Independent  earlier this week. According to The Independent, Newcastle has already spent £230,000 fighting the request .
Newcastle didn't originally comply with BUAV's FOI request and in 2010, BUAV took them to a tribunal court where Newcastle claimed that the university did not hold rights to the information in the project licenses; the individual researchers did. The court ruled against Newcastle in 2010, and upheld their decision last week, ruling that the safety concerns were unlikely to come to fruition and the IP concerns were "borderline." However, the body will allow the researchers to redact some information from the licenses. A Newcastle spokesperson says they are still deciding whether to appeal the decision and are waiting on a decision from a separate Court of Appeal as to whether releasing the license would be an ASPA offense.
This is the second license FOI that BUAV has filed, following one to Cardiff University earlier this year requesting licenses for approved experiments on cats. Cardiff has released some documents, but the project licenses are still outstanding. And a BUAV spokesperson told ScienceInsider that they have successfully filed FOI requests at eight U.K. universities.
This item has been corrected. Professor Roger Lemon is not chair of Understanding Animal Research but is chair of UAR’s Policy Advisory Group.