The European Animal Research Association (EARA) has now welcomed its 150th member institution, and to mark this achievement, EARA senior communications officer, Gege Li, has taken a look back at the progress EARA has made, in less than a decade since its founding, to develop a more open and transparent dialogue about the use of animals in biomedical research across Europe.
Since it was established in 2014, EARA has driven efforts across Europe – and, increasingly, worldwide – to foster a change in the way the biomedical community communicates with society about research using animals. The association promotes the continued need for, and benefits of, animal studies in helping us understand and find effective treatments for disease, including cancer and dementia, as well as drug development.
As a communication and advocacy organisation, EARA has become the trusted voice of the biomedical sector when discussing the use of animals in research and has attracted a diverse range of organisations to its membership, including universities, learned societies and associations, research bodies, pharmaceutical companies, as well as breeders and suppliers to the sector.
Institutions from 31 different countries are now EARA members, not limited to just Europe – in 2021, EARA opened its doors to members from Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand and the USA, and our membership reach now spans six continents.
Commenting on the 150-institution milestone, EARA Board chair, Ana Isabel Moura Santos, said:
“The substantial growth of EARA is resounding confirmation of the need for proactive communication that was recognised when the association was founded. “EARA is now a clear and trusted voice on behalf of the biomedical sector, about the benefits of animal research to the public, media and politicians.”
Supporting institutional networks in Europe
As with many other controversial issues in society, establishing the facts and facilitating a more open debate is often the best way to build trust. This has led to a series of bold initiatives by EARA across Europe to increase the public’s understanding and acceptance of animal research as an essential method of study.
EARA created the national body Research4Life.it in Italy in 2015, to form networks and spread research culture among supporting bodies, as well as built a coalition in Belgium, which laid the groundwork laid for the country’s Transparency Agreement (see below) that was launched in 2019.
In a pioneering effort to increase the public’s understanding and acceptance of animal research, initiatives known as Transparency Agreements (TAs) have been launched in eight countries in Europe (and 10 worldwide), which commit signatory institutions to being more transparent about their use of animals and why it is necessary.
EARA has supported many of the European TAs (which recently reached 500 signatory institutions), further developing the concept of transparency and guiding institutions towards greater openness. For example, EARA helped to develop, launch and co-ordinate the Spanish TA which, with 164 signatories, is the largest in 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.”
Direct communication with researchers and the public In order to inform its members and the wider biomedical community about good practice in communications and examples of groundbreaking research using animals from across the world, EARA has a number of communication channels.
EARA produces a weekly News Digest – distributed to all EARA members and stakeholders in Europe and globally. And through its social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Instagram and Facebook it spreads these messages to wider audiences – not least through its 18 separate X (formerly Twitter) accounts in European countries.
The EARA Communications Handbook, sent free to all member institutions, is an initiative to encourage greater forward planning and more proactive communications surrounding animal research. This first-of-its-kind document provides a robust step-by-step approach on how to develop a communications strategy, engage with the general public and work with the media.
In 2021, EARA set up the first-ever Be Open About Animal Research Day, a global, 24-hour social media campaign that brought together the biomedical community to showcase the diverse and inspiring ways it talks openly about animal research with the public. All three editions of the campaign to date have been supported by more than 1,000 institutions from six continents, with institutions and individuals sharing materials such as statements, videos and case studies that highlight the value of transparency, in what is the largest initiative of its kind.
Engaging with the biomedical community
One of the aims of EARA is to kickstart a culture of change, focusing on institutional policies and practices, on how organisations communicate to the public about their use of animals for scientific purposes. EARA therefore organises and runs several initiatives dedicated to improving openness in communications about this topic among the biomedical community and further afield.
Throughout Europe, EARA holds interactive openness workshops that support researchers and lab and communications staff who wish to be more proactive in their communications, with a focus on discussing why they can and should share animal research with the general public, political decision makers, and opinion formers. Meanwhile, EARA media training sessions aim to equip attendees with the tools needed to start talking about animal research to a wider audience.
Q&A videos with researchers and science communicators, published on EARA Instagram and YouTube, are a way to engage directly with the public to explain exactly why and how researchers use animals to find out more about disease. The #Transparency Thursday series provides the opportunity to find out exactly why scientists need to use animals to pursue their biomedical research, while #Let’s Talk SciComm invites speakers to share their stories and advice on how best to communicate about biomedical research and issues in engaging and innovative ways.
The latest EARA initiative is a Patient Discovery project in the Netherlands (and also planned in Portugal), aimed at creating a network to bridge the gap between patients and researchers. Patient groups have been introduced to specific biomedical research institutes through lab visits and other initiatives, to help patients understand the role that animals have played in developing treatments and gaining fundamental understanding about their disease. The project will then provide communication training to help patients, their loved ones and caregivers speak with authority to the media about the subject.
Informing policy makers Behind the scenes, EARA also works on many projects that respond to the growing political pressure and campaigning that seek to phase-out the use of animals for scientific purposes,
despite there often being no alternative non-animal methods available as an adequate replacement, and EARA provides support where needed for institutions whose licence to operate is under threat.
Through its engagement with the EU Commission and Parliament, EARA has become the trusted voice of the biomedical sector on discussions about EU Directive 2010/63 on the use of animals in research.
EARA has led the way in disseminating the annual EU statistics on animals used in scientific research, as soon as they are published by the Commission. This provides a rapid and concise breakdown to the public of the headline figures (such as the most-used species and the top countries for animal use). This overview also has the benefit of highlighting trends in use year-on-year, such as the contribution of animals to Covid-19 research and vaccine development in 2020.
An EARA working group provided guidance on how to improve Non-Technical Summaries (NTS), a document that forms part of a licence application for research projects involving animals, and that contributes to openness by clearing laying out how and why the research is being undertaken. The recommendations of the working group were later incorporated by the EU Commission into its additional guidance on NTS.
In 2023, EARA has been at the forefront of the campaign to challenge the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) petition, Save Cruelty Free Cosmetics – Commit to a Europe without animal testing, that called for a phase-out roadmap of animal research for all purposes. EARA had previously taken part in the successful initiative of the biomedical community to challenge the 2015 ECI, Stop Vivisection.
Since 2018, in collaboration with the EU Commission, EARA has carried out the EARA Study of EU-based websites – a comprehensive assessment of animal research content on more than 1,000 institutional websites, providing detailed reports of good (and bad) practice in publicly discussing animal research online, now in its third edition.
EARA has also helped develop policies alongside its member institutions. For instance, a White Paper on the ethical issues surrounding animals used in basic life science research, produced the Max Planck Society, Germany, in 2017, marked an important development in refining the ethical and legal framework in this field. The document outlined commitments that included improving animal welfare and financing non-animal alternatives, and was developed by a Presidential Commission that included EARA executive director, Kirk Leech.
Protecting the supply chain Since EARA’s establishment, the supply and transportation of various animal species used in research has faced several difficulties that have threatened to slow or hinder scientific progress and medical developments – challenges that EARA has helped to tackle.
The current global shortage of monkeys used for research, due to export restrictions in China, has the potential to seriously disrupt biomedical research in Europe. The issue has been addressed by EARA and other bodies, and the association has contributed to the efforts to explain why non-human primates (NHPs) (in particular long-tailed macaques, which is the most used NHP in biomedical research) remain a vital animal model in areas such as neuroscience. In June this year, EARA attended the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Animals Committee meeting, in Geneva, Switzerland, and outlined its concerns about the US recommendation to reclassify the long-tailed macaque as endangered, and why the recommendation is based on misleading evidence.
During the Brexit transition, EARA worked with companies and public institutions to ensure that the unique transportation issues involving the transportation of research animals, between the UK and the continent, were understood and protected. This resulted in the UK government recognising EARA as the lead organisation involved in import/export supply.
EARA is also involved in other international bodies involved with the transportation of animals, such as the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
EARA now looks forward to welcoming even more institutions to its membership in the future to build on the successes outlined above, strengthen its networks, and ensure a continuing climate of innovation and progress for human, animal and environmental health in Europe and beyond.
If you work in any institution around the world, that conducts research using animals, or informs the public about the use of animals for scientific purposes, and you want know more about how to improve communication with the public and other stakeholders, then please contact Kirk Leech, firstname.lastname@example.org