The ethics of research involving animals
There are three main reasons for using animals in research:
To advance scientific knowledge
‘Basic research’ increases scientific knowledge about the way animals and humans behave, or develop and function biologically. It is not necessarily intended to lead to applications for humans.
To study disease and develop medicines
Animals are used as models to understand disease processes and to develop new vaccines and medicines. Genetically modified (GM) animals, particularly mice, are used to study the role of genes in disease processes. Both these types of research often draw on findings from basic research.
To assess the safety of chemicals
Animals are used in toxicological studies to help test the safety of a range of substances that could be harmful to animals, humans or the environment. These include household and industrial chemicals, herbicides, fertilisers, and food additives.
How is research involving animals regulated?
In the UK, research involving animals is regulated by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. The Act requires three types of licences to be obtained from the Home Office before any animal can be used for a procedure that may cause ‘pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm’:
- a personal licence for the researcher
- a project licence
- a certificate of designation for the research facility
Before a licence is granted, researchers must consider whether the likely benefits of the research (in terms of, for example, knowledge gained) outweigh the costs to the animals used (possible pain, suffering or distress). This process is often called the ‘cost-benefit assessment’.
A number of people are involved in the decision about whether a licence is granted, but the ultimate decision is made by the Home Office on behalf of the Secretary of State responsible for animal procedures.
The Animal Procedures Committee, an independent body, provides advice to the Secretary of State on any matters related to the operation of the Act. Home Office inspectors make visits to research facilities, many of which are unannounced, to ensure that the conditions of the licence are being met.