With animal rights campaigners attacking supply lines of animals for testing into the UK, is our research as a nation going to suffer?
Important medical research carried out at our University relies on animal testing, the majority of animals used being mice and rats.
All of this work is done under extremely tight regulation, and only when no alternative to animals are available. This research helps scientists to better understand terrible conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and cancer.
But for researchers doing this crucial work, things are getting harder. Recently the animal rights group PETA have announced that two of the world’s largest air carriers, FedEx and UPS, will no longer transport mammals for use in laboratories. This has followed months of pressure from animal rights groups, which have already succeeded in getting every ferry carrier into the UK to stop their transportation of laboratory animals, as well as many airlines.
It is not yet impossible for animals to be brought into the UK, but with all ferry links now cut and growing pressures for more airlines to follow suit, it soon may be. Animal transportation is crucial for research. Last week a petition has been started by researchers to ask the government to intervene, but should we care? Should students at a university in which this work is carried out be adding their voices to this campaign?
Crucially, allowing animals to be transported actually lowers the numbers of animals used. The majority of animals brought into the UK from abroad are needed because they have a specific genetic modification (that is, they are transgenic). For example, mice do not get Alzheimer’s disease, so to give a mouse symptoms that are similar to Alzheimer’s disease, they have genes introduced into their DNA that cause symptoms of Alzheimer’s . These mice can then be used for research. Making transgenic mice takes a long time, a lot of money, and a lot of mice. If someone else has already made such a mouse, transporting a few they have already bred will save a lot of unnecessary breeding of animals, time and money.
As well as reducing the numbers of animals used, limiting the transportation of animals will badly affect research carried out. Science budgets are tight, and researchers do not have enough money for them to easily shoulder this extra cost. Either they cannot afford to remake these transgenic animals, and the work isn’t done, or the money they use to do so is taken away from another part of research.
If it starts to become impossible for researchers at UK universities to have animals transported into the country, we will be less competitive compared to universities in countries where these animals are available. This could lead to researchers going abroad to carry out their work; and UK universities such as Manchester suffering as a result. As well as being bad for universities, this could be bad for animal welfare, as work may end up being done in countries where animal welfare legislation is not as stringent as our own.
A poll conducted this year for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills found that 85% of the general public in the UK support animal use in medical research, with conditions. Most people agree that when no alternative is possible, and where suffering of any animals used is limited as far as possible, animals should be used. We need to pressure the government to ensure this important research, which the majority of the public are behind, can continue. To do this, they need to get together with transport companies and agree together that animal transport will continue. This would mean that singular companies cannot be targeted by protesters as they have been now.
As for the campaigners who are pressuring these companies; there are far better uses of their time. Animal testing practices in the UK are not perfect, and campaigners would make a much better impact if they respected the general public’s support for this important research, whilst campaigning to improve practices. For example, if results for experiments using animals which did not prove a particular idea were more easily publishable (which does not happen currently) other researchers would not repeat this work unnecessarily. Professor of Neuroscience at Manchester University, Stuart Allan, comments “It has been very difficult in the past to publish negative data but thankfully some journals are beginning to change their practice and are now doing so. Hopefully others will follow suit which should reduce unnecessary repetition of experiments using animals. Drug companies could also release data that they have obtained using animals which could again prevent others repeating the same work.” If protesters focused on specific issues such as these, they could both reduce the number of animals used, and help research.
Students should support the researchers who work at our university to keep animal transport links open. Most importantly, blocking animal transport is not better for animals, as it will result in more animals being used. It will also have a detrimental impact on vital medical research; research done in laboratories such as those at the University of Manchester. If this research suffers, our reputation on a global scale will suffer too, which would be detrimental for all students at the university.