The need to foster open and transparent communication with the general public, about the benefits to society of using animals in biomedical research, has been one of the life sciences’ key priorities over the last decade and more.
Public perceptions and ethical concerns about the use of animals have often clouded the significance of their contribution. Yet animal studies have been at the cornerstone of much of our understanding of human disease, as well as breakthroughs in the development of drugs, vaccines and other medical treatments.
This has led to a series of bold initiatives across Europe to increase the public’s understanding and acceptance of this essential method of study.
Now these national transparency agreements (TAs) on animal research have welcomed their 500th signatory institution, many in collaboration with the European Animal Research Association (EARA). Here we look at how these agreements originated and ask the agreement co-ordinators to assess their impact and their future challenges.
Pioneering openness in animal research
As with many other controversial issues in society, an establishment of the facts and a more open debate is often the best way to build trust with the public and build an understanding, in this case, of the complexities of using animals as part of the biomedical research process.
All EU biomedical institutions follow the overarching Directive 2010/63 on the use of animals for scientific purposes, which sets out a defined and progressive framework to ensure high welfare standards for research animals, and a requirement to use non-animal methods of research, rather than animal models, when a viable alternative exists.
However, an equally important requirement of the Directive is that the biomedical sector should make efforts to become more transparent about their use of animals and explain why this work is necessary and important.
In a pioneering effort to enhance transparency, in response to a declining public acceptance of the use of animals in scientific research, and in recognition of the need for a collective approach to communication, the first-ever transparency agreement in the UK was launched by Understanding Animal Research (UAR) in May 2014.
It committed its signatories – including universities, medical research charities, research funders, learned societies and commercial research organisations – to communicating directly with the public, the media and politicians.
The role of EARA in openness
Since EARA was founded in 2014, it has further developed the concept of TAs in Europe and encouraged and guided institutions towards a culture of openness and transparency about the use of research animals.
The first TA developed in collaboration with EARA was launched in Spain in 2016, by the Confederation of Scientific Organizations and Societies of Spain (COSCE), and is now the largest worldwide.
On behalf of the Spanish TA, Lluis Montoliu (pictured) said: “We have gladly witnessed the evolution of joining institutions and the commitment of many researchers in our country that have progressively engaged their own institutions in the Spanish TA.
“We are firmly convinced that transparency in animal research is the way to counteract the misinformation provided by those groups in society promoting the phasing out of animal experimentation. We understand this is the final aim of the current European and national animal protection regulation, but it is still premature for most current biomedical experimental procedures, still requiring the involvement of animals.”
Following Spain, there have been TAs in a further six European countries – Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands, Portugal, and Switzerland. There are now more than 500 European institutions in total giving their support – and globally more than 550 institutions, if you include New Zealand and the newly launched TA in Australia (click to a summary of each European TA here).
The support and co-ordination of EARA has played a significant role in driving many of these efforts and has provided a platform for sharing good practice in communications and a sense of collective endeavour and solidarity among institutions and researchers. EARA is currently working on several projects to launch more TAs in Europe, as well as the rest of the world.
Since the first TA was established, there have been four commitments that each signatory institution must agree to, which are common to every agreement across the world.
EARA executive director, Kirk Leech, said: “EARA’s contribution to kickstarting and supporting many of the European TAs that exist today has ultimately culminated in a culture of increased appreciation and understanding of the importance of open communication among the biomedical research and life sciences communities.
“As institutions continue to make strides towards greater transparency, the lessons learned from the experiences of current TAs can serve as a guide and inspiration for others seeking to establish formal animal research openness agreements around the world.”
Professor Ana Isabel Moura Santos (pictured), at NOVA Medical School (a signatory of the TA in Portugal), and current chair of the EARA Board, said:
“Having central co-ordination and EARA support has helped the Portuguese TA signatories to have a collective organisational approach to improving openness and transparency.
“Now, there are more researchers using animals who are willing to talk to the public and media, and are better prepared to provide information about their research objectives to society.”
More work to be done
In celebration of the 500-signatory milestone, we spoke to TA co-ordinators and asked them to reflect on the progress of their agreements and how TAs can continue to drive and promote transparency about animal research in the future.
Belgian TA co-ordinator, Elisabeth Herrero (pictured right), sees the future challenge as the need to ensure continuous improvement in communications, by increasing the number of signatories and including different areas of biomedical research, such as medical charities that fund animal studies.
“The TA in Belgium demonstrates the ongoing desire of the Belgian scientific community to encourage society to be more informed about the use of animals in science in a voluntary but co-ordinated way,” she said.
“It will also be important in promoting joint initiatives where TA signatories share joint messages, such as the publication of new statistical data on the use of animals in research. In this way it is more likely that the debate on animal research will be balanced, and that the voice of the scientific community can be heard.”
Another challenge for TAs is to maintain momentum and develop a regular way to share information across the group.
Dr Laura Berg (pictured right), co-ordinator of the German TA, said: “Aside from an increase in transparent information about animal research that has been made available by institutions, the most positive outcome of the German TA is the growing network and solidarity between the institutions who joined the initiative.
“We have a monthly meeting to talk about current issues, news or events and a mailing list to discuss within the whole group of members. Also, the willingness to talk openly about animal experimentation with the public, with politicians or other stakeholder groups has increased enormously.”
Monique Havermans (pictured, below right), co-ordinator of the Dutch TA, also recognised the importance of sharing information.
“A very positive outcome in my opinion is something that is going on behind the scenes. Each signatory institution has multiple representatives that attend meetings, who come either from the research or communications side of the organisation. In these meetings, we see them coming forward and sharing not only their experiences and advice, but also their struggles and questions,” she said.
“It is important to find the right representatives who have the possibility and availability in their calendar to engage and who are devoted to the cause. Maintaining good contact with them is crucial in keeping the Transparency Agreement moving forward.”
Monique also felt that one of the strengths of the initiative was the chance for individual researchers to make their voice heard.
“There seem to be many researchers who want to speak about their work yet are unsure about how open they can be. They might be afraid to be judged, or their institution might be hesitant in allowing them to be open about it. Internally and externally, the Transparency Agreement can help them stand stronger in their wish to communicate about research using animals.”
Professor Elisabeth Stark (pictured left), at the University of Zurich, the current lead institution of the Swiss TA (STAAR), agreed that the initiative was important for gaining higher levels of approval from the general public in Switzerland.
She said: “The initiative aims to enhance openness and transparency in animal research. These factors play a vital role in building trust and fostering inclusivity within the scientific community, both of which are essential for nurturing a strong and thriving research culture.
“We firmly believe that informing the public openly, transparently, and consistently about the rationale and methods behind animal research is vital in bolstering public confidence in this area of scientific inquiry.
“Furthermore, STAAR offers a valuable platform for all our 26 signatories, from academia, industry and beyond, to convene and exchange best practices. Through this collaborative effort, we can improve communication strategies and implement innovative approaches to enhance trust in animal research.”
Summing up, Elisabeth Herrero, Belgian TA co-ordinator, said:
“Openness and transparency can be a slow process, but it is one that will eventually translate into concrete actions and knowledge-sharing with the public. In the long term the implementation of these commitments by the biomedical sector can make a decisive difference in political decisions, and in national and international strategies on animal research.”
Transparency Agreements in Europe
Click on each country below to go to a summary of their TA:
To underline the importance of open communication on animal testing and animal welfare, Belgian universities and private companies were part of the initial cohort that signed the national TA.
Among the initiatives of TA members, VIB published a virtual 360° tour of its labs, including the animal facilities, with information about the research that takes place in each department. In the mouse lab, viewers could find a 38-page booklet describing why animals are used in research at VIB, alongside interviews with researchers, lab technicians and communicators.
Transparency agreement co-ordinated by: Gircor
Initiated by the French Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, France became the fifth country to sign a TA (‘Charter’) to create clarity with the public and media that high quality research, both basic and applied, requires a scientific approach that includes the use of animal models.
Some notable activities that came about thanks to the Charter include a recent report in a prime-time French news programme on monkeys used in research laboratories, which featured Gircor president Ivan Balansard, as well as members of signatory institutions Inserm and Silabe.
In 2022, a visit to an animal research facility in Strasbourg by French MEP Cédric Villani was organised, with Villani afterwards saying he was particularly impressed by the commitment of the research professionals with whom he was able to exchange views.
Laurent Borgiès (pictured), communication manager at Gircor, said:
“Societal expectations, changes in practices, the arrival of a new generation of researchers, examples from abroad, the need to demystify animal experimentation... It's a combination of factors that has led French researchers to commit to transparency. There is nothing but positives to remember, even if not everything can be done in a day, and each company does things at its own pace.”
More than 50 German universities, research centres and companies were part of the launch of the German TA, organised by DFG and TVV and supported by the Alliance of Science Organisations. The TA continues to grow and is now, after its second anniversary, double in size with more than 100 signatories (including the first zoos to be part of any TA).
Providing clear and concise information about animal research on institutional websites is an important way to demonstrate transparency, as shown in an online feature published in 2020 by signatory the Max Delbrück Center, which collated quotes from many of its researchers to explain why animal testing cannot yet be phased out from biomedical research. In another noteworthy example of transparent websites, the University of Duisburg-Essen’s Central Animal Laboratory webpage explains the need and importance of animal research, including how many animals it uses each year, and for what purpose.
Before 2021, while Dutch research institutes already shared information and data about their animal research, that information was not always easily accessible for the public – something that the TA has helped remedy by committing signatories to making a positive contribution towards creating more openness and informed discussion about animal testing and its benefits.
For example, in May 2022, the TA introduced the Netherlands Open Week where signatories organised online events to discuss animal experiments in their own way. Eight media outlets reported on the Open Week, and the initiative is being planned again for 2023.
Meanwhile, TA signatories the Biomedical Primate Research Centre (BPRC) and the Netherlands Cancer Institute contributed to the TV news show Nieuwsuur, discussing the current state of animal-free research in the context of replacing animals. The segment showed procedures with primates and mice and included interviews with leading animal researchers, such as Jan Langermans, director of the BPRC.
Portugal was the third country to establish a TA. One focus of the TA was to help people make up their own minds about the subject by providing clear and accurate information on the benefits of such research to both humans and animals – and to demonstrate that institutions were being honest and accountable about how they conduct, fund or support studies involving animals.
For instance, i3S at the University of Porto shared information about its research, facilities and animal species on their Instagram account each month, in a dedicated commitment to educating the public. Meanwhile, for this year’s #BOARD23 (Be Open About Animal Research Day) the Coimbra Institute for Clinical and Biomedical Research (iCBR) opened the doors to its animal facility through a detailed video that included statements from researchers and technicians, along with demonstrations of the types of experiments they carry out on rodents, for example to investigate bladder cancer.
Transparency Agreement co-ordinated by: Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies (COSCE) in collaboration with EARA
With 163 signatories, the TA in Spain is the largest initiative worldwide. During a time when activist groups in Spain have put increasing pressure on research institutions to participate in public debates on animal research, the transparency initiative proved an ideal way to not only combat these challenges and dispel misinformation, but also to demonstrate to researchers the value of talking about their work with animals and spur them to take action.
For example, several TA signatories have participated in the EARA Be Open About Animal Research Day (#BOARD), producing videos and statements where numerous researchers, students and technicians have openly discussed why they use animals in their research projects, how they are working towards replacement, reduction and refinement (the 3Rs), and why animals are still indispensable. See this video from the Spanish Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (SEBBM).
Other signatories, such as the University of the Balearic Islands, have opened the doors to their animal facilities and presented where animals are housed and how they are handled – in a clear demonstration of transparency with the public.
Transparency agreement co-ordinated by: Swissuniversities
In February 2022, the Swiss electorate reaffirmed its support for responsible research in Switzerland, by rejecting a popular initiative which had called for an end all animal experiments in the country. To support the institutions concerned in their efforts toward greater transparency and dialogue with the public on use of animals in research, a Swiss Transparency Agreement (STAAR) was established.
Several important initiatives have arisen from STARR, including the ‘National Information Day of the Laboratory Animal’ that took place on 10 June 2023 for the first time. It was organised by the Swiss Society of Veterinarians in Research and Industry (SAVIR), Swiss Society for Laboratory Animal Science (SGV) and Research for Life (FfL), and comprised booths in three towns in Switzerland where researchers, lab technicians, animal caretakers and animal welfare officers informed the public about animal experiments.
In the same month, public tours through the animal facility at the University of Lausanne were held, introducing participants to the notions of animal research and the 3Rs, while at the last year’s Science Night at the University of Bern, animal research and animal facilities were actively portrayed, with visitors engaged directly with researchers, animal facility personnel and animal welfare officers via posters, hands on events and lectures.
Transparency agreement co-ordinated by: Understanding Animal Research (UAR)
As the first TA to be launched, the UK Concordat on Openness in Animal Research recognised the need to do more to provide the public with information on the role of animals in scientific discovery and medical development.
To celebrate the achievements of the UK life science institutions in meeting their commitment to the Concordat, UAR also organises annual Openness Awards to recognise individuals who have championed openness on animal research, and ‘Leaders in Openness’ awards for organisations who commit considerable resource and energy to making the aims of the Concordat a reality.
“The Concordat is a voluntary code of practice which sits alongside legislation, providing a structured framework and guidance for the research sector to develop more transparent communications about its use of animals in research,” said Wendy Jarrett (pictured), Chief Executive of UAR.
“Impacts of the Concordat include an increase in publicly available information about animal research directly from those that do the research, a greater understanding of the role of animal care staff, and better access to animal research facilities.”
The future of transparency
Every European TA has grown, in its number of signatory institutions, since it was first established. This is clear evidence that the collective approach to openness is an effective and practical way to improve communication about animal research.
EARA is currently discussing the establishment of TAs on three continents – if you are interested in making this cultural change, please contact EARA executive director Kirk Leech firstname.lastname@example.org