At the beginning of this month I received a press release from Maastricht University which stated that dogs will no longer be used in scientific research there. The press release also stated that scientific research with other laboratory animals will continue unchanged. This decision had nothing to do with the quality, scientific feasibility and practical applications of such research, as that was beyond dispute. The Animal Welfare Body (IvD), the Animal Ethics Committee (DEC) and an independent evaluation committee were unanimously of the opinion that the study into improved pacemakers – to which objections had been raised – was, in every respect, completely sound. It emerged that the decision to terminate dog procedures (which, it was claimed, would contribute significantly to the quality of life of cardiac patients) was taken in response to social pressure from Dutch society.
Indeed, animal care staff actually felt threatened when they took dogs from the laboratory animal facilities to a special “playground” for their daily outing. So, to be absolutely clear, this decision was taken as a result of social pressure. There was probably no such pressure in the case of other species, as Maastricht plans to continue using all laboratory animals other than dogs. I have to wonder whether, if the dogs in question had not been quite so cuddly (as Labradors undoubtedly are) but had instead been Rottweilers or Pit Bull Terriers, for example, would there have been quite so much public disapproval?
For me, the Maastricht issue was a fresh learning opportunity, a growing awareness that biomedical science does not exist in a vacuum and that it needs social support. It is my firm belief that such support will only materialise when those working in the field of research have embraced complete transparency. By that, I do not mean an in-depth explanation of the scientific details of the study, but rather an answer to questions such as: What do I hope to achieve with this study, and why is that important? What are the study’s strengths and where are the uncertainties? Is this study merely repeating work that others have already done, or are we pushing ahead from where others left off? Could I have achieved my goal with other – less cuddly – breeds of dog, or with other species, or even partially or entirely without laboratory animals? Does my study have social support? These are just a few of the questions that I could suggest if I really put my mind to it.
More years ago than I care to remember, I had the privilege of setting up the scientific organisation of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The objective was to ensure that the EFSA’s future scientific opinions would enjoy the trust of the European public. This experience taught me that “trust” is not a commodity, you can only obtain it by ensuring that openness and honesty underpin everything you do. Talk to all of the parties involved, without exception. And listen very carefully. That is what I mean by “transparency”. It is also is the goal of the Netherlands National Committee for the protection of animals (NCad).
Wonderful, relaxing summer with plenty of nice weather. Much as I love the silly season, I’ll skip August. In September and we'll be back at work – ready, willing and able to submit two advisory reports.
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