BMJ 2002;325:238 ( 3 August )
Roger Dobson, Abergavenny
Animal experiments are necessary, but more needs to be done to develop and promote alternative methods, says the House of Lords Select Committee on Animals in Scientific Procedures.
In a new report the committee recommends the setting up of research units to find ways of reducing the need for animals and replacing them.
"There is scope for the scientific community to give a greater priority to the development of non-animal methods," it says. "The UK Government should use their influence to urge the EU to make the development and validation of replacements for animal experiments a priority, particularly in toxicology."
It also says that the Home Office should give urgent attention to simplifying licences, with the aim of reducing the average length to 10 pages. While acknowledging that the United Kingdom has the tightest regulations on animal experiments in the world, it says the regulations have become unnecessarily bureaucratic.
The report recommends that section 24 of the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, the confidentiality clause, should be repealed. "Specific justification should then be made for each class of information that needs to be kept confidential, such as the identity of researchers and matters of commercial confidentiality and intellectual property," it says.
It wants scientists of all grades to have personal responsibility for the welfare of animals in their care, and it wants better data on animal suffering to be kept.
"Serious efforts should be made to provide better statistics on animal suffering. The Home Office Inspectorate should develop or approve a `scoring system' for animal suffering which could be operated by named animal care and welfare officers and named veterinary surgeons," it says.
Another recommendation is that the current restrictions on the use of terminally anaesthetised animals for training surgeons should be relaxed.
The number of animals used in experiments in Britain has halved over the past 25 years, although there was a 2.2% increase between 1999 and 2000, taking the total to 2.71 million. Most procedures in 2000 were carried out on mice (59%), followed by rats (20%), fish (9%), birds (4.5%), guinea pigs (2%), hoofed mammals (2%), rabbits (1.5%), dogs (0.3%), non-human primates (0.13%), and cats (0.07%).
"Animal experiments are still needed, but more could be done to find new methods of research and testing which don't involve animals," said the committee's chairman, Lord Smith of Clifton. "There is also too much bureaucracy which hampers scientific research and can harm animal welfare. Our recommendations, together with a much greater openness about what animal experiments are done and why, should help to create a better balance between the legitimate needs of science and the care and welfare of animals."
The animal welfare charity the RSPCA welcomed the report: "The select committee has carried out an in-depth inquiry, taking evidence from right across the board," said Dr Maggy Jennings, head of the RSPCA's research animals department. "Many of the recommendations made by the report echo the RSPCA's written and oral evidence to the committee. Now it is essential the recommendations outlined in the report are implemented by the government."
She said that a government-supported centre that encouraged and coordinated the development of humane alternatives had the potential to have a major impact on animal use in science, provided it was independent and properly set up.
Animals in Scientific Procedures is available from the Stationery Office, price £13, or at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld/ldanimal.htm
© BMJ 2002