Under the current provisions of section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (ASPA), the UK Home Office cannot release confidential information – even when the provider has no objection to disclosure.
The government suggests section 24 be discarded while protecting the names of places, people, and intellectual property. Along with this attempt to become more open and transparent, it also wants to reduce the use of animals in scientific procedures.
Changing public attitudes
Public attitudes about animal research are changing. Some people feel we have no right to subject sentient beings to painful and lethal procedures to advance knowledge or find cures for human diseases. Others have come to the conclusion that animal models fail to predict human responses.
A 2013 opinion poll commissioned by Humane Research Australia, for instance, found 57% of respondents were not even aware animals are used in experimental research in Australia. And 64% didn't believe humans have the moral right to experiment on animals.
In the United Kingdom, a 2012 Ipsos MORI poll found 37% of respondents objected to animal research. Young people aged between 15 and 24 years were most likely to oppose it (46%) because of the importance they place on animal welfare.
And a 2009 survey in six European countries found 84% of respondents agreed or mostly agreed that new guidelines should ban all animal experiments that cause severe pain and suffering. These and other surveys show many people are opposed to using laboratory animals. This proportion has increased over the last decade.
People opposed to animal research (like us) have an obvious interest in more disclosure. They believe that if the public were adequately informed, there would be more pressure to stop or minimise it. But so arguably do those who see a need for such research and are concerned about the respect for animal welfare in laboratories.
Greater transparency is also supported by significant voices on the research side. More information, it's argued, would dispel some of the inaccuracies about research coming from animal advocates. It would also help educate the public about what are seen by many in the biomedical community as significant benefits to humans.
But while it may be that all sides of the animal research debate desire transparency, Australia remains behind, making minimal effort towards openness, better communication, greater accountability and more public access to information.
What should be public
As in the United Kingdom, animal research in Australia is highly regulated. The National Health and Medical Research Council's Code of Practice for the Care and Use of Animals for Scientific Purposes requires collection and collation of data on the details of research proposals.
The care and welfare of animals in the laboratory must also be monitored and recorded.
But even though we know such information exists, or should exist, we can't access it. None of it is public and, in our experience, attempts to obtain it by direct requests to institutions and government departments mostly fail.
A straightforward way to increase transparency then would be for more of this material to be made publicly available. The following information would give the public a clear picture of animal experiments and how and why they're done.
Summaries of the number of animals used and killed in research, the species, the impact of procedures and the purpose. These statistics (called the animal use returns) are currently published sporadically and inconsistently by the states.
Minutes from or summaries of ethics committee meetings and related documents (project proposals, the reasons animal use is required, the effort made to consider alternatives, the impact on the animals, and ethical justification in terms of benefits and costs).
Annual animal ethics committee reports, which include details about efforts to replace and reduce animal use, as well as what's being done to decrease the severity of procedures applied to those animals still being used.
Details of all animal research funded by the NHMRC (up to the current year), as well as details of any publications.
Details about the living environment of animals, such as any enrichment of their environment, opportunities to express species-specific behaviours, and whether individual animals are kept isolated from other animals.
There are confidentiality and intellectual property issues related to some of these documents, but there's no reason why these can't be dealt with as the UK government intends to. If necessary, the simple and common method of blacking out names and other identifying information would suffice.
The next steps are a national reporting scheme of animal use returns, and publishing plain-language summaries of animal research projects. Along with a number of European countries, the UK has being doing exactly this for the last three years.
The summaries provide a clear picture of what's done to animals in the laboratory and why, but don't name researchers or institutions. In Australia, these could be readily compiled from project proposals submitted to animal ethics committees.
How to reduce animal use
The number of animals used for scientific research is enormous: about 115 million each year worldwide and over seven million in Australia.
Some countries are taking positive steps towards reducing this number. The United Kingdom is, again, leading the way with a policy of eliminating testing of household products on animals. It has also a stated commitment to reducing the numbers of animals used in scientific experiments.
In contrast, the only major initiative in this area in Australia has been a Green's private member's bill earlier this year to ban the largely discontinued practice of animal testing for cosmetics.
Transparency, and the accountability that goes with it, is key. Greater public scrutiny will make it harder for institutions to approve animal research that doesn't save human lives. It will also reduce the high rate of duplicated research which is another unfortunate by-product of our lack of openness.
Australia has a long way to go in giving laboratory animals a better deal – lifting the veil of secrecy should be the first step.
Dr Monika Merkes is and Honorary Associate at the Australian Institute for Primary Care & Ageing at La Trobe University.
Image credit: Understanding Animal Research