Australian universities and institutes pledge transparency on animal research

Thirty research institutions and organisations are among the first in Australia to pledge greater transparency in animal research.

Signatories of the Openness Agreement on Animal Research and Teaching in Australia include the CSIRO, several universities and medical research institutes. 

The announcement – at this week’s Australian and New Zealand Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Teaching (ANZCCART) conference in Adelaide, South Australia – sees Australia join a growing list of countries working towards greater accountability in animal research.

Dr Malcolm France, a veterinarian who has worked in animal research and facility management, convenes the ANZCCART Openness Agreement working group.

France tells Cosmos: “The primary goal is to try and demystify animal research and perhaps correct some of the misunderstandings about it. And allow the public to be in the best position to make up their own mind.”

Animals are used in a wide range of different types of scientific research in Australia and other countries, encompassing everything from the use of rats and mice in medical research, agricultural field trials and observational studies.

Research involving animals is approved by Animal Ethics Committees within research institutions. Researchers must apply the ‘3Rs’ – showing there is no alternative to the use of animals (‘replacement’), the minimum number of animals are used (‘reduction’) and methods minimise harm and support animals wellbeing (‘refinement’). 

All animal research activities are covered by the Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes, developed and published by the National Health and Medical Research Council and relevant state or territory animal welfare laws.

France says the Australian Openness Agreement is closely modelled on an approach pioneered by the United Kingdom in 2014 in response to decades of controversy over animal testing and research.

“In the early 2010s, [the UK] began to notice, through public opinion polling, evidence of a steady decline in public acceptance of animal research,” France says. 

“So the scientific community decided they needed to rethink the low profile approach. And after going through some fairly extensive public consultation, and consultation within the research community, they decided to do a 180 turnaround.” 

The UK model invites organisations to make a voluntary public pledge to greater openness and transparency in animal research.

Eight other countries – including New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland and other European countries – have since adopted a similar approach. 

“The Openness Agreement is a tried and tested model,” France says.

He says the announcement is the result of three years of careful work and engagement with institutions that use animals in research as well as animal rights and welfare organisations.

The overarching goals are to inform the broader community about how and why animals are used in research.

A 2022 survey of Australian attitudes to animal research by the University of Adelaide, for ANZCCART, found a majority care about the use of animals but don’t feel well informed about the system.

France says in addition to increasing public understanding and responding to animal welfare concerns, there are good reasons for greater transparency relating to greater accountability for public and philanthropic funding, and ensuring ethical and legal controls relating to animal care are being followed.

Inaugural signatories include AstraZeneca, Australian BioResources, Centenary Institute, CSIRO, Elanco, Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Heart Research Institute, James Cook University, LaTrobe University, Macquarie University, Melbourne Polytechnic, Telethon Kids Institute, University of Newcastle, University of South Australia, University of Wollongong, Victoria University and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

Organisations supporting the agreement include the Australian Academy of Science, the Australian Veterinary Association and the RSPCA Australia.

The first public reports under the initiative are expected in a year.

“I see this is the beginning of a journey. We are looking at a fairly major change in the way the scientific community has engaged with a broader community about animal research,” France says. 

“I think we have to understand that in many cases, they will want to take this cautiously, and move in small steps. But it’s ongoing progress and commitment that we’re looking for.”

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