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Scientists ready to explain animal work

Jan 29, 2004
Simon Collins
The New Zealand Herald

Scientists say they are willing to disclose some animal experiments to try to win over public opinion.

They told MPs in a pre-Christmas meeting that they were willing to:

* Publish a plain-language summary of all research projects approved by animal ethics committees.

* Publish more detail on the types of animal experiments that cause specific degrees of animal suffering.

* Consider having animal ethics committees chaired by independent lay people.

The proposals, from the Australian and New Zealand Council for Care of Animals in Research and Teaching, which represents the main research bodies, would still keep the membership of animal ethics committees secret to protect members from animal rights protesters.

But Green MP Sue Kedgley, who attacked the present system last year as throwing a "veil of secrecy" over animal experiments, said the proposals would be a step towards involving the public in research decisions.

A public opinion survey published by the Bioethics Council yesterday found "almost universal rejection" of experiments that put human genes into other animals, such as an AgResearch project to produce a human protein in cow's milk.

The chief executive of the new biotechnology industry group NZ Bio, former Hawkes Bay vet Brian Ward, said the industry needed to tell people more about the medicines it aimed to develop using animals.

"You can produce very large volumes of therapeutics at a low cost," he said. "For all the people suffering from multiple sclerosis, here's probably as effective a therapeutic as they may come across in the future."

Dr Don Love, an Auckland University biologist who chairs the university's animal ethics committee and co-chaired Council for Care of Animals' 2003 conference, said it was "common ground" between scientists and MPs that the approval process for animal experiments should be more transparent.

"Those who are interested can access that information from the scientific literature anyway, but it's sometimes impenetrable to the public," he said.

"So a lay summary that serves as a pointer to that work, I think, is crucial."

He said details were still being debated, but Auckland University wanted the summaries posted on a national website only after the research had been finished and without naming either the scientists involved or where they worked.

"There are dangers to individual scientists, so trying to marry that with transparency is an exercise in diplomacy," he said.

There was also debate over whether the ethics committees should be chaired by independent lay people.

Dr Love personally saw value in the present system, where all but three of the 12 or 13 members of Auckland University's ethics committee were staff scientists.

"The role of the chair is more than that.

"You are chairing the meeting, you are following up afterwards and working with the applicants, you are reviewing the applications and helping people through the process," he said.

Government backbencher Tim Barnett, who is forming an MPs' animal welfare group with Ms Kedgley, said he did not expect everything to happen at once.

"This is a gradual process of opening up," he said.

"I don't see it as the end of the road. I see it as something that exposes more information than we've had."

© Copyright 2004, The New Zealand Herald