Will British research remain world-leading? Flickr/Amy. Some rights reserved.
In what must be one of the hardest-to-predict general elections ever, it can be difficult to decide which candidates match your personal convictions. But technology is aiming to bridge that gap: The Public Whip can help you identify how elected MPs voted on multiple issues you might care about, for example. Increasingly, single-issue campaigns are building tools for voters to quiz — and lobby — their MP on anything from housing provision to digital rights.
Recently, I and other candidates were contacted by an online campaign called ‘Vote Cruelty Free’ asking us to give our support to a six-item proposal to change the way that animal research is regulated in Britain. The demands were as follows:
1) Ban experiments on cats and dogs.
2) End the secrecy surrounding animal experiments.
3) Stop importing monkeys for use in laboratories.
4) End non-medical experiments.
5) Stop genetically modifying animals.
6) Stop suffering in the most extreme experiments.
These might look reasonable at first, but do they stand up to examination? Unfortunately the pledge site only gave us the option to declare outright support or opposition to the full set, so I thought a more productive approach would to be to respond in more detail online.
Animal welfare in Britain
On February 24, Britain took the historic step of legislating to make mitochondrial donation therapy possible, offering hope to those carrying mitochondrial defects and creating the possibility for them to have children without passing on the diseases that currently afflict — and usually kill — over 100 babies each year. But medical progress depends on a global ecosystem of life sciences research. Development of novel techniques to a level where mitochondrial donation could be trialled in humans relied on earlier studies using macaques, for example.
Britain is at the forefront of much of this research and, in addition, currently has the highest animal welfare standards worldwide. It is already illegal to conduct animal experiments if an alternative exists and illegal to use cats or dogs if a different animal could be used. Research on animals for cosmetics or on great apes for any application is banned outright. I’m proud that the UK has such high standards and proud that the Liberal Democrats have worked hard in the UK and Europe to drive further improvements.
I discussed the campaign with my colleagues running under the Lib Dems’ ‘Team Science’ banner and together we reached out to several experts in this area: Sense About Science, Understanding Animal Research, Speaking of Research, and former MP and science spokesperson for our party, Dr Evan Harris. The consensus was that these policies are either directly harmful (both to animals and to medical progress), or simply out of date with changes already underway. The government published a paper on reducing use of animals in research where possible last year and public funding to find ways to reduce animal use was increased from £5.3m to over £8m. Measures are also underway to increase transparency on animal research — despite the worrying history of threats and violence towards scientists.
Maintaining our global reputation
If you want a detailed point-by-point rebuttal of the six proposals, I recommend reading the response by Speaking of Research issued in December. But there are a few general points that are worth raising again here.
Firstly, there are problems with demanding that animal procedures should only be used to test new human medicines. Developing treatments requires an understanding of physiology and disease as well as their interaction with drugs or vaccines. Without progress in basic research, the development of new therapies would be almost impossible. This policy would also halt veterinary and conservation research based on animal studies, which could lead to unnecessary suffering of pets, farm animals and endangered species. The option to use vaccines to treat badgers and cattle for TB instead of resorting to an expensive and damaging cull exists only because of these “non-medical” studies.
Secondly, banning genetic modification could increase the number of animal procedures required as it would reduce researchers’ ability to precisely control physiological variables, as well as removing tools such as tracking the spread of cancers or other defects with marker molecules such as green fluorescent protein (GFP).
Finally we should consider the UK’s position in the global research community: our reputation as a leading place to conduct responsible life sciences research allows us to set an example on animal welfare regulation and management overseas. Adopting the proposals above would rule out over 88% of animal research in the UK, meaning that life science companies would likely move their operations elsewhere to countries with less strict controls, to say nothing of the economic costs to the country.**
It’s difficult to see a full overview
of which candidates have already signed up to these measures, but Green leader
Natalie Bennett seems to be one. You can check whether your local candidate has
backed them by entering your postcode on the campaign site. If you want to
secure a future for responsible research in the UK, I’d ask you that you share
this article with your local candidate and, if they have chosen to sign the
pledge, ask whether they would be happy to hollow out British biological and
veterinary research and to export the development of our future human and
animal medicines to China, Turkey and Brazil instead.
**The figure of 88% (88.6% to be precise) is based on the numbers in the government report "Statistics of scientific procedures on living animals, Great Britain 2013". This was based on summing the procedures involving GM animals, all studies not classified as “Applied studies – human medicine or dentistry”, and all studies on cats, dogs or imported primates.