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Through the Looking Glass: seeking transparency in animal experiments

By Helen Marston - posted Monday, 29 December 2014

Animal experimentation is often a very polarising issue. There are those who acknowledge the unethical nature of such research, and express grave concerns over the inaccurate extrapolation of data from one species to another, yet there are still some who maintain its necessity. Putting emotion aside, it can be difficult to hold an informed opinion on such matters when facts are frequently difficult to obtain given the researchers’ propensity to withhold information about the process.

Obtaining information about what actually happens to animals in research can be a challenging process. Questions to the funding bodies are usually directed to the state departments responsible for animal welfare. State departments commonly refer questions back to the funding body – often the National Health & Medical Research Council.  Requests for information – minutes of Animal Ethics Committee (AEC) meetings, annual reports - are denied, and straightforward requests such as statistics are at best difficult to obtain.

Upon questioning a company or institution about their use of animals in research the standard response is that all animal use has been considered and approved by an AEC, and that the researchers adhere to strict animal welfare legislation.   Case studies published by Humane Research Australia however suggest otherwise.


How can such research as feeding alcohol to pregnant sheep, shaking lambs to death and dropping weights onto the exposed brains of rats have possibly gained ethics committee approval? Or if it did, why is this information blocked from public access?  How can it be argued that these animals’ welfare has been protected by legislation?   These experiments were funded by Australian taxpayers – surely the tax payer has a right to know what Australian taxes are being spent on?

2013 opinion poll commissioned by Humane Research Australia, found 57% of respondents were not even aware animals are used in experimental research in Australia.

Those opposed to animal research have an obvious interest in more disclosure. They believe that if the public was 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. For example, at the 44th annual Society for Neuroscience Conference last month, scientists and activists urged their colleagues to be more open about animal testing in research, saying transparency will foster understanding of the research and its use of animal models.

But while it may be that all sides of the animal research debate desire transparency, Australia remains behind the rest of the world, making minimal effort towards openness, better communication, greater accountability and more public access to information.

The European Union has addressed such concerns and Article 43.3 Directive 2010/63/EU now requires that non-technical summaries are published by the European Member States in order to provide the public with access to information concerning projects using live animals.


These summaries must include title, purpose, objectives and benefits, number and type of animals, predicted harms and application of the 3Rs (Reduction, Refinement & Replacement). They must be written in non-scientific language and accessible for five years.

Certain projects (including those which use non-human primates) must also undergo a retrospective analysis – a powerful tool to facilitate critical review of the use of animals. It is believed that this facilitates improved design for similar studies, raises openness of best practice and prevents mistakes.

Summaries are compulsory in the EU States since2013 and are certain to make a significant contribution to transparency.

Australia does not have a good reputation when it comes to animal usage. It is the fourth highest user in actual numbers (first in ratio to population), behind only China, Japan and the United States, with no commitment to reduce the numbers used. Unlike more progressive nations Australia does not have any government-funded institutions dedicated to the development and validation of alternative research methods. 

There does of course need to be an open and honest debate. For this to occur, more transparency is essential.  Australia has a long way to go in giving laboratory animals a better deal – lifting the veil of secrecy, by following in the EU’s footsteps - should be the first step.

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About the Author

Helen Marston is CEO of Humane Research Australia - a not for profit that challenges the use of animal experiments and promotes more humane and scientifically valid non-animal methods of research.

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