Select Committee on Animals In Scientific Procedures Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 940-956)



  940. How do AMRC charities assess research proposals? What differentiates the AMRC from, say, the MRC in the types of research which it funds? This is very much a question of fact rather than opinion, so if you could please tell us what the difference of approach is between your two organisations?
  (Dr Layward) Do you wish me to address the question of research proposals and how we assess them or just talk about the difference between the two organisations?

  941. I think we will skip that one and just talk about what differentiates the two.
  (Dr Layward) The Association of Medical Research Charities is an umbrella organisation of many different charities. There are over 100 members from the very large, like the Wellcome Trust and British Heart Foundation, down to very tiny medical research charities, usually focusing on quite rare single diseases. It is a big variation. The one thing that binds us altogether is the fact that we have strong and published guidelines on peer review and that is very similar to the way in which the MRC reviews its grant applications as well. I would say in terms of quality of the research, the differences between the AMRC and the MRC really is very little. I would say the big difference is that AMRC charities obviously have to fund according to their charitable aims. We can only use the funds that we raise for the purposes for which the charity was set up. For example, I cannot fund research into cancer and into heart disease but I can fund research into infertility, osteoporosis, liver disease and diabetes, because all of these things affect people who have cystic fibrosis; we are constrained by our charitable aims and, of course, our published research strategies, which most charities have. I would say a big difference is really that we have less money than the MRC so we obviously cannot fund the great breadth of research that the MRC can fund. In many instances we can fund very similar funding schemes, such as career development funding schemes, but some of the larger initiatives are really outside the scope of many of the smaller charities, such as funding institutions, large collaborations or large clinical trials; we just do not have the funds.

  942. But you do fund in a complementary way?
  (Dr Layward) I would say that the word "complementary" is ideal. Because we wish to only fund the highest possible quality science we are obviously going to be funding the best scientists within the UK and, as such, they will also be funded by the MRC and from other Government funding. This is complementary funding.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton

  943. I am a scientist but I am very well aware of something which the Americans always talk about, good science, and I know that sometimes that is quite a long way from being useful. Scientists like to muddy that area in my view. To get funding for good science they say you have to do all this fundamental work before you get to the practicality and that is not often the case, you can often get to a practical solution quite quickly and not necessarily understanding everything. What puzzles me sometimes about the medical charities is how much you are, if I may say so, pushed by the need to do very good science that is very well peer reviewed in scientific literature as opposed to solving some medical problems which could perhaps be solved in a more quick and dirty way, if I may say so.
  (Dr Layward) Let us just talk about the single disease medical research charities because that is a very focused type of charity. Most of those medical research charities will have a very mixed portfolio of grants. Usually a section of it, about half, will be on basic research but the other half will be much more short-term and about trying to alleviate the symptoms, the here and now, of a particular disease. If you look at most of the single disease charities you will see this type of division, less or more depending on what the disease is. We do need to do high quality science, there is no question, otherwise we will not be able to use the results that come out of it. That must be fundamental to our funding but nonetheless we recognise that we need to have a mixed portfolio of more instant answers, if you like, usually in terms of symptom control, balanced with long-term research.

  944. This being the Animals in Scientific Procedures Committee, how does this dichotomy between the two strands affect the use of animals?
  (Dr Layward) Quite frequently the type of research that is more likely to be using animals is going to be the basic research, understanding the fundamental biological mechanisms that underpin any particular disease. More animal work is done on that area. As we get on to the symptom control it becomes much more applied science and, as such, is quite often on human beings.

Baroness Eccles of Moulton

  945. If we could move on to the last section. As we have got ten minutes left what I think might be a good idea would be if you could make some general comments on the subject of transparency, openness and public opinion and that might give us some guidance on how the views at the two extremes of the debate might be brought closer together, which is slightly outside the central theme.
  (Dr Matfield) The RDS is an organisation which exists to explain to people why animals are used in research, so if you ask us how much information on animal procedures should be made available to them, the answer is more from our point of view. We believe it is important for people to understand why animals are used in medical research, and to understand that some of the more lurid and shocking stories they might read are not realistic or representative. In principle we are very much in favour of providing more information and more transparency and openness. At the same time, that has to be balanced against a number of considerations, such as the safety of the individual. It is an issue that comes up all the time when we are asking scientists to go on television to explain what they do in their research with animals. There is an enormous amount of concern and fear amongst them that they will be targeted by animal rights extremists. I certainly have been targeted by extremists and I know it is not something that I would want any scientist to go through. On the other hand, unless somebody takes a lead nobody else will start standing up in public and talking about what they do. I think it is important that scientists do that, so our job is to provide a lead in that direction. There are other areas in which people's interests should be safeguarded, not just with information that might lead them to be at risk. Commercially sensitive information obviously needs to be safeguarded from unwarranted disclosure and information supplied in confidence needs to be protected. You may recognise that what I am describing are the main tenets of the new Freedom of Information Act. We actually believe that this has struck the balance quite well. Lack of openness, often for the very good reason that people are scared of being targeted, has not helped the public understanding of the use of animals in medical research and greater openness will help. One of the things we like to do is try and organise occasions for people, journalists, school children, anyone, to visit animal laboratories and see what it is like for themselves. It is the best way for them to understand it.

  946. Professor Page, is there anything that you would like to add?
  (Professor Page) I think you asked the question about how public confidence in the inspection system may be increased and I think having a system equivalent to a lay visitor, for example, for prisons would work very well, going in with the inspectorate, because then I think people could go along and see for themselves that, in what we do, we have got nothing to hide. That may be one way of allaying public concern about this issue, if the inspectorate were able to bring in specified lay visitors. I think that would help enormously. I personally, and I think I speak for most of the scientific community, would be against web-cameras. Not because I have anything to hide but I already have cameras on my house linked to Special Branch because I, like Dr Matfield, have been threatened with death by animal rights extremists and having my face on a camera 24 hours a day, for anybody to recognise who I am, where I work, is a security risk that I do not think anybody should be under.

Lord Lucas

  947. No, but for the inspectorate I think was the idea.
  (Professor Page) For the inspectorate is a different issue but that was not clear from the question.

  948. It is not clear from the question but the problem arises, and no doubt you have seen It's a Dog's Life, the programme, there is no way that inspectors could detect that kind of wrongdoing. If you cannot do it by inspection how else would you find it acceptable to be done?
  (Professor Page) Personally speaking, I would have no problem having a web-camera linked to the inspectorate. I think other people may for commercial reasons inside the pharmaceutical industry but as an academic, speaking personally, I would not have a problem because I have nothing to hide in my laboratory. That was not clear from the question but now you have put it that way I think it is a different issue completely.
  (Dr Matfield) If I might come in on that. I think the inspectorate might have a problem with it. They too have been threatened, just as scientists have. I would wonder about the Home Office's ability to recruit inspectors if part of the job description included—

Earl of Onslow

  949. It is basically a non-stop inspection. If the man goes in unannounced on Tuesday he is seeing with his own eyes what is actually running all the time while the laboratory is functioning. It does not show either the inspector or the scientist to anybody in the outside world, it is in effect a closed document, it is not for outside.
  (Dr Matfield) To be honest, I find it difficult to imagine any area of human life that is regulated, where a 24 hour a day web-cam would be taken as a normal and acceptable part of regulation and would not be considered an invasion of privacy.

Lord Lucas

  950. You did not see the first episode of Judge John Deed evidently.
  (Dr Matfield) I believe that is fiction.

Lord Taverne

  951. The Home Office published a mass of information that nobody seems to know about. How can the information which they publish get across to the public more effectively?
  (Dr Festing) Could I comment on that. We felt that it was very important that there was, in fact, greater information coming from the inspectorate themselves rather than just from the Home Office. We would like to see a greater degree of independence of the inspectorate from the Home Office. That would include perhaps a dedicated website for the inspectorate in which they would make clear what their role is, have questions and answers, and, as we suggested in our original submission, quarterly reports on their inspections of facilities and their efforts to apply the 3Rs.

Baroness Eccles of Moulton

  952. So you would semi-detach the inspectorate from the Home Office but you would probably have to set up some sort of buffer committee or something between the two because the inspectorate has got to be directly accountable to somebody somewhere, does it not?
  (Dr Festing) I am talking here about the provision of information in that sense.

  953. Not the activities?
  (Dr Festing) Not the functions, no.

  954. It might not be such a bad idea anyway.
  (Dr Festing) Could I possibly comment on the question of dialogue. We do consider that there is, in fact, a very healthy and active debate at the moment about animal science and animal welfare and the 3Rs, which goes on in meetings, in conferences, in the International Journal of Laboratory Animal Welfare, also FRAME has a newsletter, and we have meetings with the RSPCA. The responsible animal welfare groups engage very constructively with ourselves in debate on almost all aspects of the 3Rs and animal welfare and that often does result in policy changes, like the ban on using animals to test tobacco or alcohol products. There is still a problem with the polarisation. The anti-vivisection groups do not appear to see dialogue as useful. The mainstream groups refused to participate in the Boyd Group, which is a forum set-up. They do not come to meetings or conferences. I have got a number of letters here from anti-vivisection groups refusing to meet or even, indeed, to correspond with us because they call us a trade industry vivisection group. They do not actually attempt any dialogue with the various institutes that they target as part of their campaigns. We do consider this a real problem. Anti-vivisection is clearly a very absolute philosophy with no compromise whatsoever, they make that very clear, and it is difficult to know where to find the common ground. As a suggestion of the way forward we think, firstly, greater openness should stimulate more debate and so we are very enthusiastic supporters of the Freedom of Information Act. Secondly, we want to involve more organisations in this debate. There are many others, the medical associations, the universities, who could certainly get more involved. Thirdly, we would like to see organisations involved in both sides of the debate. As an example I have brought an article from Diabetes UK magazine, one of our member charities, who allowed a debate to go on, almost a for and against, with the RSPCA and myself writing articles on both sides just to show that there are both sides of the debate.

Earl of Onslow

  955. Surely there is a difference, is there not, from the RSPCA, who are purely animal welfarists, they do not take an absolutist position, but if you say it is wrong ever to do tests with animals there can be no dialogue. There is a perfectly reasonable question for dialogue between welfare organisations and people who wish to test but there can be no dialogue between somebody who—
  (Dr Festing) I would like to see you questioning the mainstream anti-vivisection groups as to why they refuse to participate in the debate.

Earl of Onslow: We have.

Baroness Eccles of Moulton

  956. I think that quite a lot of the argument here relies on public opinion and if public opinion becomes stronger and stronger against the anti-vivisectionist moment, because it is so obdurate, then that will play very much into the hands of the moderates. I am afraid the witching hour has arrived. Are there any points that any of you would like to make that have not been covered by the questions?
  (Dr Matfield) I think, looking to my colleagues, we have made all the main points we would like to in response to your questions. Thank you very much for inviting us and giving us the opportunity to present to the Committee.

Baroness Eccles of Moulton: Thank you for providing us with such excellent answers. Thank you.

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