Animal Ethics – how much do you know?

18 March 2016 - By: Dr Penny Hawkins

Animal Ethics – how much do you know?

By Dr Penny Hawkins
Research Animals Department, RSPCA

Do you engage with local ethical review of animal use at your establishment? Perhaps it is done by an ethics committee, Animal Welfare Body (AWB), Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Body (AWERB), or Animal Care and Use Committee (ACUC). The catch-all term ‘Ethical Review Body’ (ERB) can be used to refer to these institutional committees, or processes, all of which should bring together members with different expertise and perspectives in order to apply local values when considering whether and how animals are used.  

'3R's' And more

There are many facets to ethical review, including considering specific ethical and welfare questions that arise in relation to individual projects or the facility’s wider policies and practice; providing a forum for discussion on matters relating to animal welfare, care and use; and advising on the application of the '3Rs' (replacement, reduction and refinement).  

Ethical review can also include harm-benefit analyses of proposed projects involving animals, and monitoring the development and outcome of projects, including the effect on the animals used and whether there are further opportunities to implement the '3Rs'.

Do you know what your local ERB does, and how it operates? Are you an active and enthusiastic member, taking every opportunity to ensure that new information on the ‘3Rs’ is identified, reviewed and implemented, and to promote the right local ‘culture of care’?  Or do you only engage with your ERB if it reviews your projects, and view it as a source of stress, hoops and hurdles? Of course, most researchers will fall somewhere between these two positions. Wherever you sit on the spectrum, it is always worth reflecting on how you could increase your engagement with your local ERB, ensuring that you derive maximum benefit from what should be one of your establishment’s key assets with respect to improving both animal welfare and science.

Get Involved

Scientists can contribute a great deal to the tasks of the ERB, for example by providing information on improved experimental techniques, and input into reviews of potential replacements and refinements.  Being present at, and participating in, the ERB’s discussions can also improve communications between researchers and staff with other roles, increasing mutual understanding and developing a positive culture of care that can be recognised and promoted by all.  It should also help you to become more familiar with (and help inform) the local values applied by your ERB, and with the level and nature of the information required by members, making reviews of your projects run much more smoothly.

If there is already a scientist on the committee, do not be put off becoming more involved yourself – for example, the regulator in the UK stipulates that the local ERB ‘must include a scientific member’, but there is no need to stop at only one. In my personal experience, a healthy complement of scientists on an ERB can lead to lively, constructive and valuable debate.

With this in mind, the SEB satellite meeting on ‘Improving experimental approaches in animal biology: Implementing the 3Rs’ in July this summer will include a workshop on engaging with ethical review.  This will illustrate the tasks of relevant committees and discuss effective communication and interaction between researchers and their local ERBs. If you can’t attend the meeting, consider whether you can increase your engagement with your own local ERB (see here for inspiration)?.




Category: Animal Biology

Dr Penny Hawkins

Penny Hawkins is head of the RSPCA's Research Animals Department, which works to promote implementation of the Three Rs (replacement, reduction and refinement) and effective ethical review of animal use. Her main interests are helping to support local, institutional ethics committees in fulfilling their tasks, and refining housing, husbandry and procedures to improve welfare and reduce suffering, with a focus on avoiding severe suffering.  Penny sits on two local ethics committees and served on the UK national committee for 10 years. Penny has a PhD from the University of Birmingham and has worked in the RSPCA Research Animals Department for almost 20 years.