Keeping watch

UBC academics plan an international forum to explore new models of regulating animal research that enhance public involvement

Are humans more important  than animals?

A close look at how research involving animals and humans is monitored may yield an answer that would be surprising to most.

“In some ways, the animal research governance system is not only more stringent, but better, than the governance of research involving humans in Canada,” says Cathy Schuppli, a visiting scientist with UBC’s Animal Welfare Program, who along with Michael McDonald, professor and Maurice Young Chair of Applied Ethics at UBC, has studied the issue.

They compared Canada’s human and animal research governance systems in six areas—compliance, independence, transparency, accountability, quality assurance and education—and found that in all but the last, there were clearer guidelines and stronger enforcement for animals than for humans.

Pioneered in Canada

Developed and maintained by the Canadian Council for Animal Care (CCAC), the Canadian system is internationally recognized for achieving compliance through a number of avenues.

In 1968, the CCAC pioneered the use of institution-based Animal Care Committees (ACCs) to review and approve animal research proposals.  This model was then used as a starting point by Switzerland, the U.S., New Zealand, Sweden, the Netherlands and the U.K. to develop their own systems.

Member institutions voluntarily participate in the CCAC’s assessment program. However, the CCAC reached agreements with federal government funding agencies—the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)  and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council—in 1986 that stipulate institutions can only receive funding if they are in compliance. This means that the agencies will only fund institutions that comply with CCAC standards. (UBC fully participates in assessments and is in compliance.)

Since 1975, the CCAC has collected and published information on the number of animals involved in research nationally, the degree of invaisiveness animals were exposed to during research activities, and the purpose for which animals were used. It also requires each institution to be assessed every three years—a comprehensive review of the institution’s research protocols, ACC documentation, veterinarian reports and a visit to each of the animal facilities by the CCAC assessment panel—to receive the Certificate of Good Animal Practice (GAP).

“The CCAC has developed a multi-pronged strategy to achieve compliance among academic institutions,” says Schuppli, “and through the introduction of their GAP Certificates, is attracting voluntary compliance by some government departments and a small but growing number of private research labs.

“They’ve also affected changes to government policies, created new or enhanced existing legislation, and lobbied governments to incorporate CCAC standards into provincial legislation and the federal Criminal Code.”

Seven provinces have amended legislation to include CCAC guidelines and five of those (Alberta, PEI, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador) now make compliance with CCAC standards a requirement under provincial law.

In contrast, there’s no mandatory system for site inspections for institutions receiving federal funding for human research, and while there’s a mechanism for withdrawal of funding when animals are misused, there’s no such blanket stipulation when it comes to human research. There is also little information about the participation of humans in research being collected nationally, including number of studies and participants or the prevalence of adverse events.

Developments in the U.K.

The U.K., notable for being the first country in the world to legislate research animal welfare, requires that the likely adverse effects on the animals be weighed against the likely benefit of research. This is done through inspectors and independent assessors appointed by the Secretary of State, who then issue individual or project licenses. The licenses also specify where the research can take place, and identifies an expert who advises on animal health and welfare for the project. In essence, the U.K. system appoints advocates who act on behalf of the welfare of the animals.

In Canada, the funding agencies convene peer review panels to assess the scientific merit of a research proposal. The institutional ACC then reviews the proposal with regards to the use of animals.

Schuppli, who studied the dynamics and effectiveness of ACCs as part of her PhD research in the UBC Animal Welfare Program, says ACCs focus their efforts on minimizing harm to animals by applying what’s known as the 3Rs principle: reducing the number of animals used; ensuring that replacement, wherever possible, takes place; and reducing harms caused by procedures (also known as refinement).

“Our current system seems to leave unanswered the question of whether the scientific merit outweighs the harms that the animals experience,” says Dan Weary, a professor in UBC’s Animal Welfare Program and NSERC Industry Chair in Animal Welfare.

The underlying assumption of the current governance system is that any potential scientific benefit trumps potential harm to the animals—what the ethicists call the “human priority” model, a notion that seems to be increasingly challenged with the rise of the animal rights movement and a general decline in support of the use of animals in research, compared to 50 years ago.

“There is no doubt that the sentiments against animal research are growing, and it’s in large part because the public only hears one side of the story,” says Bill Milsom, head of UBC’s Department of Zoology and former chair of UBC’s Animal Care Committee.

“The challenge for researchers is to remain non-emotional,” says Milsom. “It’s hard when people are leveling charges against you—what you’ve devoted your life to doing is a waste of time, or even criminal. It’s hard not to take it personally.”

But Milsom says, based on conversations with animal rights activists, he feels the two sides may not be as far apart as they might think on the issue of transparency.

“I think the research community would agree that there isn’t the need for the degree of perceived secrecy there is around animal research,” says Milsom. “And I say ‘perceived’ because nothing is secret—everything is published and ultimately in the public eye. It’s just a matter of when.”

Let the public decide?

Studies have shown that attitudes toward animal research can vary widely based on gender, age, vegetarianism, experience with animals and education. The type of animals involved, trust in regulatory bodies and even economic benefits of the application have also been shown to influence attitudes towards biotechnology.

“Clearly the research community has one view of the value of animal-based research, while at least some critics of animal use have very different views,” says Weary. “A larger question, given UBC’s mandate to better connect with the community, is how broadly held are the views for and against animal use in research?”

For example, Schuppli and Weary found in a recent study that public attitudes around research change when genetically modified animals are thrown in the mix.

In their 2010 study, they found that 66 per cent of participants supported using pigs to reduce phosphorus pollution, but support declined to 49 per cent when the pigs were fed genetically modified corn, and dropped further to 20 per cent when the research required the creation of a new line of genetically modified pigs.

A forthcoming study by Elisabeth Ormandy, a recent PhD graduate in UBC’s Animal Welfare Program, shows participants are equally willing to support research using zebrafish and mice, but support for animal use dropped when a technique perceived as painful was used.

“This type of research gives us a better sense of what our society deems as acceptable and where to draw the line,” says Weary.

“The larger question, then, is whether the research community is willing to open the door to greater public participation in determining the research agenda,” says David Fraser, a professor in UBC’s Animal Welfare Program and NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Animal Welfare.

Fraser points out that in Sweden, research ethics committees are established for a geographical region and are therefore independent of any specific research institution. They also have an equal number of scientists and community members, including strong representation from the animal welfare movement—a model established in part to address calls for greater public involvement.

In Canada, while the humane movement is represented on the CCAC—they hold four out of 30 voting seats and representatives are nominated by the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies—“no one has a stated mandate to represent the ‘general public,’” says Schuppli.

“On institutional ACCs, the ‘public’ is often represented by one or two members from an animal advocacy agency,” says Schuppli. “Finding ways to engage the community to select their own representatives—as is done in New Zealand and Australia—could bring the process a step further towards achieving broader representation of current societal views.” (Community members on UBC’s ACC have consisted a representative from the BC SPCA, as well as a teacher, a lawyer and an architect on a rotational basis.))

Having a realistic grasp of what the society values could also motivate the research community to find alternative methods and take lab animal welfare to a new level, says Marina von Keyserlingk, a professor in UBC’s Animal Welfare Program and NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Animal Welfare, but both the research community and the public need to better communicate their priorities and vision for the future.

To that end, the research community at UBC, with assistance from von Keyserlingk, Weary and Fraser, has applied for funds from CIHR to supplement funds already committed by UBC’s Vice President Research and International and the Faculties of Land and Food Systems, Medicine and Science. The goal is to organize an international forum next spring at UBC, bringing together experts from the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand and Canada to share lessons from respective systems—a first step toward finding a “Canadian solution” to the problem of fair and transparent governance, says Milsom.

They plan to follow the forum with other initiatives to further involve the public—to take place concurrently with ongoing research into better mechanisms for public engagement, such as Weary and Schuppli’s current work on online surveys.

“Animal research is a complex issue spanning a number of disciplines across the sciences, lab animal welfare, ethics, and political science,” says Milsom. “We are faced with the problem of how best to engage the public in governance of animal-based research and as university academics we need to approach this in a scholarly fashion. Problem solving is what academics do and I am excited that UBC is taking a leadership role in attempting to find a working solution to this problem.”

To read previous installments of the Animal Research series and for more information on animal research at UBC, visit

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