Animal research: what does openness look like?

14th November 2015

By Rob Dawson

Animal research remains a contentious subject and some scientists are still concerned about openly discussing their research for fear of attack from campaign groups. This packed event at the Academy of Medical Sciences highlighted how these concerns are unjustified today and asked science PRs to do all that they can to encourage greater openness in their organisations.

Wendy Jarrett, CEO of Understanding Animal Research, gave an update on the Concordat on Openness in Animal Research, which was launched in 2014. There are 96 UK organisations signed up to the Concordat as a commitment to help the public understand more about animal research.

Some organisations have taken small steps towards greater openness, such as ensuring clarity on animal use in press releases. Others have taken giant leaps by organising open days and appearing on documentaries.

Natasha Martineau, Head of Research Communications at Imperial College London, gave an overview of her experience in communicating about animal research following a lab infiltration by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection.

Imperial were already communicating about animal research at the time, but the infiltration prompted a greater focus. Imperial has since initiated internal and external strategies for communicating about their animal research. The internal strategy includes support and advice for researchers, an animal research newsletter and working more closely with the student newspaper. For external audiences they have produced animal research website pages, been more proactive in putting animal researchers forward to talk to the media and captured video from the animal research labs.

The Cambridge biomedical cluster has also been a focus for campaign groups. There has been a ‘boycott Cambridge’ campaign linked to animal research and heavy pressure against a planned primate research facility.

Against this backdrop, Craig Brierley, Head of Research Communications at the University of Cambridge, encouraged openness. Whilst honest portrayal of animal research may upset some people initially, it is important that it is in the public domain so that debate and discussion can happen.

The university has changed its website pages on this topic to be more public-friendly, replacing simple policy statements with more dynamic content, such as video and newsfeeds.

The Medical Research Council has been as the forefront of the openness crusade and Carmel Turner, Chief Press Officer at the Medical Research Council, convinced the audience that being open about animal research was the only option. Some researchers have been concerned about being open due to fear of attack, protests or issues with charity funding, but these fears were often unfounded or outdated. Being more open hadn’t led to any negative consequences for organisations involved in the Concordat. Carmel also made a plea for organisations to put new animal researchers forward to talk to the media so that the public could see a broad range of vital research, rather than focusing on one or two organisations and individuals.

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