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Openness in animal research

The Babraham Institute is a world-class research institution who focus on fundamental biological questions of how cells and organisms develop and respond to the environment. As much of their research concentrates on understanding the basic science behind how our cells and bodies work, the use of animals for some areas of research remains essential for future scientific breakthroughs.  Here, Louisa Wood, Communications Manager at the Babraham Institute, discusses how the Institute have approached facilitating openness in animal research and why this is important to their overall aims.

Why be open?

At the Babraham Institute, we’re working to provide accurate information about how animals are used in our research in order to raise awareness of why it’s necessary and why, at the moment, it’s the only option for gaining the comprehensive insight we need to try and answer the unknowns. The use of animals in research is an essential component of our fundamental biological research which aims to understand development, the ageing process and what goes wrong in disease. To give some examples, animal research from our Institute has increased our understanding of a mechanism important in placental growth and associated with pre-eclampsia, helped us explain why older people have less effective immune systems and contributed to the development of a drug for leukaemia.

Providing accurate information, explaining the benefits of what research using animals can tell us, and also being clear about how animal use is strictly regulated and how research animals are cared for, goes a long way to answering many questions and addressing misconceptions.

Moving towards openness in animal research

The Babraham Institute has a history of engaging the public on our use of animals in research, hosting ethics workshops for school students to explore the controversies, discussing our research at science festivals and public talks and inviting visitors to our animal facility. Signing the Concordat on Openness in Animal Research in 2014 was a natural next step which has allowed the Institute to develop new activities and initiatives to become even more transparent about its use of animals in research. An exciting project was the installation of cameras into our animal facility (more below) which has significantly enhanced our communications with visitors to the Institute. We also expanded the information available on our website and in brochures and committed ourselves to clearly identifying research involving animals in our news items and press releases.

One of our Concordat commitments (there are four) is that we’ll be more proactive in engaging with the media. We had an opportunity recently to contribute to an ‘Impact’ programme produced by students from the Cambridge TV School discussing animal research. Remembering the aggression of animal activist organisations which made the headlines in the past, inviting ‘the media’ in was a big step both for the Institute and especially for Laura, one of our animal technicians, and Klaus, a researcher, who were interviewed for the programme. However, we recognise that there’s no substitute for people who work with animals and those whose research involves animals speaking out about what they do and why it’s necessary. The same principle has led to the Institute creating a touring exhibit presenting information about careers in animal technology, which visits careers fairs and schools and gives people the chance to discuss the opportunities and details with staff from our animal facility.  

Opening up a barrier facility

The animal research at the Babraham Institute uses mice and some rats. The animals are housed in a state-of-the-art facility which maintains the animals in an exceptionally clean environment. Everything that enters the unit, from animal feed and bedding to computers, printer paper and even people’s lunch, is cleaned on entry in order to protect the animals from unintended infections. The people who look after the animals shower into the unit every day and don hospital-style scrubs. It’s essential to our research that the animals are of a known health status; any accidental infection by an environmental pathogen might change the outcome of an experiment.

Having a barrier facility obviously means restrictions on access, so we looked at alternative ways to allow people to learn about the facility and how the animals are cared for and used. In March 2015, we installed cameras, a bit like CCTV but these cameras don’t record and they’re not operational all the time. The cameras can swivel and zoom and provide direct line of sight to the different parts of the facility. We even have roaming hand-held cameras to show areas not covered by the fixed cameras. As a consequence of the cameras, we’ve been able to ‘open up’ our facility to a wide range of audiences: public groups, teachers and students who visit to discuss the ethics of using animals in research, research funders and even construction workers and engineers. Compared to just 37 people physically touring the facility in 2012–2013, 169 people have taken part in a virtual tour (led by a facility manager) from March 2015 to September 2016.

Our use of the cameras to engage people with the use of animals in research was recognised by a commendation by Understanding Animal Research’s Openness Awards in 2015 and also by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) as part of their Excellence with Impact competition in 2016.

Communicating and training to achieve openness

Of course, none of this would be possible without training, supporting and encouraging our staff and students. We’ve received excellent support from Understanding Animal Research, including onsite training for our researchers on how to talk about using animals and advice on communicating about animal research via social media. Encouraging communication about animal research is a long way away from historical advice to not disclose details of your work due to fear of being targeted by animal activists. Continuing this culture change will take a significant amount of time but the more we witness the positive outcomes associated with being open, the more the use of animals in research becomes a discussed and debated part of research as a whole, rather than something which is hidden away unsaid.  

 

Louisa Wood

Communications Manager, Babraham Institute

Image credits: Babraham Institute


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