In an effort to put behind them decades of opposition from animal rights campaigners, dozens of organizations involved in animal research released a concordat on openness  today aimed at helping the public better understand the conditions of animals in laboratories and their importance for medical and biological science. The concordat commits organizations to a number of measures to increase the visibility of their operations and requires them to report annually on their progress. It encourages but does not require animal research labs to allow visits by journalists, politicians, schools, and patient and community groups.
Laboratory animals remain a vital tool in improving our understanding of how biological systems work, the U.K. government’s chief science adviser, Mark Walport, emphasized in the document's introduction. But, he added, “[t]he public deserves to know why and how animals are used on its behalf in scientific, medical and veterinary research in the UK.”
The United Kingdom has a painful history of animal rights extremism that has included break-ins at laboratories, fire bombs, and the violent intimidation of researchers, animal breeders, building contractors working on laboratories, and companies that transport animals. This culminated in a notorious case in 2004 in which extremists exhumed and stole the remains of a woman whose son-in-law ran a guinea pig breeding business. Many companies ceased trading in animals or withdrew from contracts following intimidation.
About 10 years ago, the police began to crack down on extremists, leading to dozens of arrests and prison terms of more than 10 years. But public support for the use of animals in medical research continued to drop. In 2012, more than 40 biomedical organizations signed a Declaration on Openness on Animal Research ; the new concordat, which grew out of that declaration, was informed by consultations with the public and journalists and has been signed by 72 universities, government labs, research charities, drug companies, learned societies, trade associations, and research councils.
The signatories have undertaken to pursue four commitments:
- Be clear about when, how, and why they use animals in research;
- Enhance communications with the media and the public about their research using animals;
- Be proactive in providing opportunities for the public to find out about research using animals;
- Report on progress annually and share their experiences.
Each commitment has a series of suggested actions for organizations, including nominating a spokesperson to answer questions about animal research, supporting researchers who want to talk about their work, and including information on the role animals played in announcements about scientific advances.
“For many years, the only ‘information’ or images that the public could access about animal research were provided by organizations opposed to the use of animals in scientific progress. This is why many people still think that animal research means testing cosmetics and tobacco, despite the fact that these have been banned in the UK for more than 15 years," said Wendy Jarrett, head of the campaign group Understanding Animal Research and chair of the concordat working group, in a statement. "The Concordat is an excellent opportunity to dispel these myths and give the public a chance to see the ground-breaking research that is being done on its behalf.”
But People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA UK) said the concordat is a “rather obvious smokescreen” because it allows researchers to decide what to reveal and what to hide from the public. The government has recently stated its intention  to amend or repeal Section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, which allows animal experiments to be carried out in secret. “It is only through the repeal of Section 24 and freedom of access to information held by the Home Office that experiments and experimenters' conduct can be examined so as to ensure the best possible outcome for animals and science,” PETA said. “As the saying goes, ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant,’ and it's high time that the toxic animal experimentation industry is forced to clean up its act.”