De Geoff Watts FMedSci, Chair of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research
The Academy of Medical Sciences was among the signatories to the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research launched in May, 2014. One of our Fellows, Dr Geoff Watts, chaired the steering group that oversaw the development and introduction of the concordat.
Geoff writes – The words “openness” and “transparency” having become virtually mandatory in all policy statements in most domains of life, it is no surprise that some researchers who use laboratory animals have felt that they too should be opening their work to closer public scrutiny. Until quite recently, many have felt inhibited from doing so. Not because they were ashamed of their work, but on account of the behaviour of a minority of animal rights activists. To talk openly about research using animals has been invite to public abuse or threats of violence, sometimes realised.
In recent years the mood has changed. Extreme animal rights activism has been taken more seriously by the police, with a number of well-publicised prosecutions. More researchers are now prepared to speak about their animal work, and explain it. One outcome of this development was that in October 2012 more than 40 organisations involved in bioscience in the UK signed a Declaration of Openness on Animal Research. They promised to develop what was dubbed a “concordat” setting out the ways in which signatories would be more open about the use of animals in UK scientific, medical and veterinary research.
I was invited to chair the Steering Group assembled to draft the content and wording of the concordat, essentially a set of promises: to explain more fully why animal work is necessary; to respond more, and more fully, to requests for information about animal work; to be more proactive in providing such information; to devise more and better forms of engaging the public; and to allow some degree of direct access to animal laboratories. From the outset we knew that it was the last of these requirements that would face the greatest hurdles.
To reach a final wording acceptable to all was not easy. A series of amended drafts was passed back and forth between our Steering Group and a Working Group, the latter comprising individuals whose jobs put them in a position to liaise directly with those sectors of the bioscience community whose commitments we were seeking. Between us we tried to reach the best possible alignment between the legitimate interests of the public and those of the research community.
It became clear to us that a requirement by all signatories to offer direct access to the public and/or the media would, for a variety of reason, be impracticable. But the Concordat reminds signatories that some institutions do already arrange visits of various kinds, and it encourages other organisations to give serious consideration to doing likewise.
The final version of the Concordat benefitted from a public consultation and a public dialogue. The latter was established in May 2013 to explore public expectations of openness and transparency around the use of animals. Its findings were sufficiently valuable to justify publishing as a document in its own right.
The agreed version of the Concordat came into effect in May 2014. Signatories will report back on what they have done, and what they have achieved.
It will most likely be impossible to know for certain what specific impact the Concordat has on attitudes to research involving animals, not least because this is subject to many influences, and anyway varies from time to time. What can’t be denied is the pubic commitment that signatories have given, and against which they can certainly be judged.