Australian scientists, universities and research institutions have been urged to be more open with the public about how and why lab-animals are used.

Bella Williams from British organisation Understanding Animal Research says that recent years have seen a complete turnaround in how some research institutions engage with the public over their use of animals in scientific studies, and that Australia is lagging behind.

“In the past, intimidation by a small extremist element pushed many in the research community to become almost secretive about their use of animals,” Ms Williams said at an Australian and New Zealand Laboratory Animal Science Association (ANZLAA) conference.

“Unfortunately, the public was left to assume the worst despite the UK research being strictly regulated with high animal welfare standards.

“This has now changed dramatically. Since 2012, over 120 of Britain’s top universities, research institutions and pharmaceutical companies have signed a public pledge committing them to greater openness in their animal research programs.

“As well as posting details of their animal research on their public websites, some have even provided virtual tours of their animal facilities.”

The pledge, known as the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research in the UK, requires institutions to commit to providing clear, publicly available information about their use of animals through proactive communication strategies and regular reviews of progress.

Increasingly, organisations around the world are taking similar steps towards greater transparency, reflecting public expectations that organisations are clear about their approach to ethical issues. 

Spokesperson for the Australian and New Zealand Laboratory Animal Association, Malcolm France, says the research community in Australia is often reluctant to engage openly about animal research.

“Unfortunately, this does nothing to support informed discussion. Many people still think that cosmetics are tested on animals in Australia even though this has never actually happened here,” he said.

“Australian regulations for protecting animals in research are ranked among the highest internationally and animal research has played a role in some of Australia’s most important medical breakthroughs: cochlea implants, cervical cancer vaccine and anti-flu medication all have a basis in animal research.

“Animal research will always be an ethically complex area. But with greater openness, at least the debate can become better informed.”