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Today the Home Office has released the latest annual statistics on UK research animal use. Chris Magee, Head of Policy and Media  at Understanding Animal Research, explains what the stats really show.

Public understanding of how and why animals are used in medical, veterinary and scientific research is essential if people are to have confidence in the regulatory system, and if they are to be protected from those groups who are wont to misrepresent the science, the scientists and the procedures themselves.

The annual statistics are typically accompanied by a ministerial statement but the real substance is to be found in the supplemental tables, which describe how many animals, of what species, are used for what general area of research.

These numbers reveal some interesting truths about animal research in the modern era. They reveal, for instance, that while the number of ‘procedures’ rose from 2011 by 8% to a total of 4.11 million, a large proportion is accounted for by breeding experiments, i.e. the birth of a genetically modified (GM) or a ‘harmful mutation’ (HM) mouse (e.g. strains with a mutation which allows them to be a useful model of disease). Around 48% of procedures were breeding experiments, an increase from last year’s proportion of 44%. Excluding these figures, the number of procedures involving normal animals actually decreased by 2%.

The stats also demonstrate a 3% rise in procedures undertaken for human medicine. They further reveal that 97% of experiments involved mice, rats, fish or birds, weighted heavily towards mice, whilst dogs, cats and non-human primates combined constituted only 0.2% of experiments.

Looking more long-term, we can see that there has been a 26% drop in procedures involving ‘normal’ animals since 1995, whereas procedures involving GM animals (mainly breeding experiments), have undergone a 7.86-fold increase. In 2012, for the first time, the number of procedures involving GM animals (1.91 million) was greater than the number performed on ‘normal’ animals (1.68 million). Thus, although the number of experiments appears to have remained stable, the nature of those experiments has been undergoing a quiet revolution.

Also hidden in the stats are the severity limits of project licences, which indicate how severe the intended procedures might be. Obviously, license applicants have a tendency to cater for a worst-case scenario to minimise the chances of exceeding the terms of their project licences, but it would appear that around 38% of procedures applied for in 2012 were mild, 58% moderate, 2% unclassified and just 1% substantial. These stats are surprisingly stable, and barely fluctuate year to year.

In the future it will be interesting to see the results of retrospective reporting of actual suffering (as opposed to licenses’ forecasts of potential suffering), which is expected from 2015. One could reasonably expect to see the ‘mild’ category expand as ‘moderate’ shrinks once the measure moves from over-cautious guesswork to careful recording. There were even plans, since abandoned as unnecessary admin, to introduce a ‘sub-mild’ category, since so many experiments end up involving less suffering than a blood sample. These experiments will remain in the ‘mild’ category.

What the stats will never tell us, however, is why individual experiments are undertaken and what cost/benefit analysis was applied to the project by the Home Office when granting the licence. This may be in part resolved through the publication of lay summaries of project licences. Publishing lay summaries both increases the disclosure of procedures undertaken (beyond those which are published in scientific journals) and, crucially, avoids the scientific jargon of a typical paper, which could confuse the general public and conceal the nature of procedures behind technical words.

The annual statistics dryly set out some of the costs of animal research whilst hinting at the benefits and in doing so constitute a neutral third-party document that punches a hole in many of the myths that surround animal research. With publication of lay summaries and the planned future reporting of actual severity, the true nature and context of animal research will be clearer and the general public will be better informed about the costs and benefits of animal research.

A summary and infographics of the 2012 statistics are available from Understanding Animal Research.