Science organisations pledge openness in animal research and teaching in New Zealand

Twenty-one universities, institutes of technology, non-profit organisations, Crown Research Institutes, government organisations, umbrella bodies, research funding organisations and learned societies have committed to communicate openly about animal use.

New Zealand will be the first country outside Europe with an animal research openness agreement, launched this week in Queenstown at the Australian and New Zealand Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Teaching (ANZCCART) 2021 conference.

New Zealand has long been committed to maintaining and improving high standards of animal welfare, as well as undertaking world-leading research and teaching using animals, controlled under the Animal Welfare Act 1999.

The scientific community in New Zealand recognises the importance of demonstrating and promoting values that contribute to these animal welfare standards.

The objective of the Openness Agreement on Animal Research and Teaching in New Zealand is to ensure that the public are well informed about animal research (including the benefits, harms, and limitations).

Topics such as the role animal research plays in the process of scientific discovery, how research is regulated in New Zealand, and what researchers and animal care staff do to promote positive animal welfare should be addressed.

Communication should be realistic about the ethical considerations involved (including that of the 3Rs of Replacement, Reduction and Refinement). Research is done that aims to benefit humans, animals, and the environment.

New Zealand’s agreement is modelled on the UK’s 2014 ground-breaking Concordat on openness on animal research led by Understanding Animal Research. Similar agreements followed in Spain, Portugal, Belgium, and France, with the assistance of the European Animal Research Association. The New Zealand Board of ANZCCART gratefully acknowledges the extensive work by these organisations who continue to inform and support progress on these issues in Aotearoa New Zealand and this ANZCCART-led Openness Agreement initiative.

Professor Pat Cragg, Chair of the New Zealand Board of ANZCCART and Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), University of Otago, said:

“Public confidence in animal research depends on the scientific community taking part in an on-going conversation about why, and how animals are used. Through signing this openness agreement, the signatory organisations have committed to having this conversation with the public.

“At the time that the UK Concordat was launched, there were mixed responses from New Zealand delegates. Responses ranged from ‘yes we must do this too’ through to ‘let’s be very cautious about this’.

“When I returned to the New Zealand Board as Chair in early 2020 I was delighted to see such an agreement was well underway. Now, seven years on from the Concordat, the NZ Openness Agreement is ready to launch. The working group and the many institutions involved in the consultation phase that have worked tirelessly to bring this agreement to fruition are to be congratulated. Being open about why and how we use animals in research and teaching is just so important.”

The five commitments are:

  • Be clear about why and how animals are used in research and teaching
  • Enhance communications with the media and the public about use of animals in research and teaching
  • Enhance communications with tangata whenua about use of animals in research and teaching
  • Be proactive in providing opportunities for the public to find out about research and teaching using animals
  • Report on progress annually and share experiences

The Science Media Centre has posted the responses it received after asking experts to comment on the agreement:- 

  • Dr Sally Birdsall, Lecturer, Faculty of Education, University of Auckland, comments:

“For many people animal research is a mystery, which is worrying for scientists. My research has found that while some young women are concerned about the use of animals in research, their awareness was not consistent with the reality of animal research in Aotearoa New Zealand. Also, they lacked awareness about the legislation governing the use of animals in research, and were mistrustful that scientists were following these regulations.

“The Openness Agreement on Animal Research and Teaching in New Zealand provides a way to unveil the mystery. It offers an avenue for greater transparency, where scientific research that relies on animals can be made more visible to the public. The Agreement will allow the public to develop a greater awareness of how animals are an integral part of the practice of science, which animals are used, and the benefits of their use. Aotearoa New Zealand has high standards of animal welfare that are part of our laws. Through greater transparency, the public will be able to see how scientists adhere to the regulations, taking steps to ensure that their animals are well cared for, and that the animals are valued.

“In these ways, people can have more open, informed discussions about the use of animals in research, gaining a greater appreciation of the important role animals play in scientific practice.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I am a member of the New Zealand Board of the Australia and New Zealand Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Teaching who have developed the Openness Agreement.”

  • Professor Craig Johnson, Co-Director, Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Centre, and Director of Research Ethics, School of Veterinary Sciences, Massey University, comments:

“The new ANZCCART Openness Agreement on Animal Research and Teaching represents a significant step forwards in our social debate about what constitutes appropriate use of animals. The nineteen signatories are making a public commitment to be more open in how they communicate the work that they do with animals, and this will enable conversations about the ethics of animal use to be better informed and grounded in reality.

“Our modern democratic society rightly demands that we maintain social license for all that we do. We can best achieve that by communicating openly about what we are doing, and the regulations and limitations that we place on our work.

“New Zealand has a world-class regulatory framework that governs the use of animals for research and teaching, and we have no reason to be shy of public scrutiny in this area. Indeed, being open and honest about our animal use, along with its costs and benefits, is more likely to reassure society and maintain public license than to erode it.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Until 2020 I was a member of ANZCCART. I am a member of NAWAC. I work at Massey University in a senior research and ethics role.”

  • Dr Mike King, Senior Lecturer, Te Pokapū Matatika Koiora / The Bioethics Centre, University of Otago, comments:

“This agreement is an immensely valuable achievement. Animal research and teaching can only occur if a society consents to it, permitting researchers and teachers to do their work, and allowing others – people, non-human animals, and the environment – to benefit from the results of this work. Without consent from society, expressed through public agreement, and facilitated by law and policy, animal research and teaching will diminish, and any value it offers will diminish as well.

“Like consent to anything, for it to be ethically valid those giving it must have access to information they reasonably need to decide whether they agree with what they are consenting to. There is already information about animal use in research available, for example, through the data collected and made publicly available by the Ministry for Primary Industries, and from some organisations and individuals involved in animal research and teaching. But more is needed. The Openness Agreement signed today expresses publicly the commitment of signatories to adopt and pursue openness as one of the anchoring principles of their animal research and teaching.

“What does greater openness look like? Primarily, it is envisioned as organisations involved explaining why and how animals are used in their research and teaching. A crucial further commitment is to communicate this information to tangata whenua. This information is essential for informing the ongoing deliberation, public and private, by individuals and groups, whānau and families, hapū and iwi, about whether and what uses of animals in research and teaching are justifiable or tika. There will be different views about what information is needed to explain this, and what constitutes fulfilment of these commitments. It is unlikely that all will agree on this topic, but they will have the opportunity to be more informed. Animal research and teaching is an ethically complex issue, and informed, reasonable disagreement about it is an opportunity for ethical progress to be made. Animals are central to this issue, and should be central beneficiaries of this progress.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I am a member of the ANZCCART NZ Board, a member of the National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee, but am commenting on the agreement here as an academic.”

  • Dr Helen Beattie, Chief Veterinary Officer, New Zealand Veterinary Association, comments:

“The New Zealand Veterinary Association strongly supports the development of New Zealand’s own Openness Agreement on the use of animals in research and teaching. As such, we are pleased to be one of the inaugural signatories on the Agreement. We look forward to increased transparency in conversations about the role of animal research in our society. This will ensure that animal welfare remains the central principle, while the public, researchers, educators and animal care staff can constructively exchange their viewpoints on the issue.”

No conflict of interest.

  • Associate Professor Malcolm Tingle, Head of Department of Pharmacology and Clinical Pharmacology, University of Auckland, comments:

“In New Zealand there is oversight of the use of animals for Research, Testing and Teaching (RTT) under the Animal Welfare Act, 1999. This requires that any intention to use animals for such purposes are assessed by a local animal ethics committee (AEC), and this should include a commitment to use the information obtained as part of justifying the ethical cost. Whilst this is often done at the level of the individual, for instance, by a researcher publishing the results of their experiments as part of normal academic practice, there has been a reluctance for organisations to be open with the public about animal use. This in part has been driven by a fear of anti-vivisection activities, adverse publicity, and in some cases, the potential for distress and/or harm to employees and students using animals from such activities. Whilst some details are made public, such as animal use statistics, these are often presented in an anodyne way as possible. As such, the use of animals for RTT in New Zealand has relied on a high trust model operating largely behind closed doors. The Openness Agreement should be seen as a very welcome move to provide some clarity on what is actually done with animals through the five commitments.

“Increasing public scrutiny in a non-confrontational way has the potential to improve the use of animals for RTT, particularly by increasing the justification for the species and numbers used, as well as the manipulations performed. Committing to the use of PREPARE and ARRIVE guidelines allows fellow scientists anywhere in the world to make a more informed assessment of the validity of data generated and many scientific journals now insist that authors provide this information in order to get the work published. It is just a shame that it has taken New Zealand so long to reach this commitment.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Malcolm has used animals for the purposes of research and teaching; he was a member of the University of Auckland Animal Ethics Committee from 2000-2010 and chaired the committee from 2005-2010; he was a member of the National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee from November 2013- October 2019; he remains a member of the Psychoactive Substances Expert Advisory Committee that recommended the testing required to demonstrate a low risk of harm for registration of psychoactive substances.”

  • Professor Bart Ellenbroek, School of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“I think the agreement is an excellent first step. Animal research will always be a controversial topic, as it should be. The animal welfare organizations have done a lot of good, and have led to significant improvements around the ethical use of animals in research. Likewise, animal research (and animal researchers) have greatly contributed to the improvement of wellbeing for both humans AND animals (for example, much animal research focusses around conservation of our native fauna).

“As in all other fields, information and facts is the key to making a balanced judgement and I think researchers have too long shied away from this discussion. I hope the openness agreement will change this and will help to explain to the general public why, at this point in time, it is necessary. In addition, it gives researchers a chance to explain how research is done, and how we continually strive to improve it and, in line with the 3R principles, how we aim to reduce, refine and ultimately replace animals in research and teaching.”

Conflict of interest statement: Bart chairs the Animal Ethics Committee at Victoria University of Wellington and was involved in drafting the Openness Agreement on Animal Research and Teaching in New Zealand.

Sources: Royal Society of New Zealand and the Science Media Centre

Author: Bob Edlin

Editor of AgScience Magazine and Editor of the AgScience Blog