UK Funders Demand Strong Statistics for Animal Studies
In animal experimentation, the replacement of animals wherever possible, reduction of the number of animals tested on, and refinement of experiments to use fewer animals is known as the “3 Rs.” This guideline is supposed to govern a great deal of animal experimentation around the world, yet many millions of animals are still used in laboratories every year. In the U.K., a research council has presented 2015 guidelines instructing that “funding applicants must now show that their work will provide statistically robust results or risk having their grant application rejected.” This may mean that researchers have to use more animals in experiments or they risk having their funding cut.
The 3 Rs of animal research – replace, refine, reduce – have been an entrenched aspect of institutionalized animal research for decades. Even if their application is debatable, the existence of the 3 Rs as a concept is a positive thing that shows the potential of phasing out animal research for more ethical alternatives. However, Research Councils U.K. (the body responsible for channeling government funding to scientists in the U.K.), announced changes to their guidelines for animal experiments. Funding applicants now have to show that their work will provide “statistically robust” results, or they risk missing out on grant money. According to a report in Nature magazine, “the move aims to improve the quality of medical research, and will help to address widespread concerns that animals — mostly mice and rats — are being squandered in tiny studies that lack statistical power.” It is a strange paradox that the Council is trying to resolve: based on concerns that “these animals are going to be wasted,” they are encouraging the use of additional animals in experiments, so that the statistics are “more reliable.”
Underlining Research Councils U.K.’s decision is a report from international academic partnership CAMARADES (Collaborative Approach to Meta Analysis and Review of Animal Data from Experimental Studies). In a study of the results of research on animals, CAMARADES’s report showed that “many animal studies are underpowered: studies in stroke, for example, are typically powered at between 30% and 50%, meaning that there is just a 30–50% chance of detecting a biological effect if it exists.” Part of the problem is a “lack of training and support in experimental design,” though some also note that there are limited funds and “animals are expensive to work with.” In a strange twist, the article notes that “the pressure to ‘reduce’ may be one of the reasons for small experiments, but others counter that this is a misinterpretation of the 3 Rs because small experiments are ethically problematic if they have low statistical power.” The guidelines have angered animal advocates who can see clearly that “it’s completely unethical to use animals in studies that aren’t properly designed,” and that increasing the number of animals used isn’t a more ethical alternative.
The various scientists quoted in the article are hesitant to lay blame on any particular agency or source of the problem, which is complex and indicates a host of issues at various levels of the industry. Some scientists suggest asking for more money to do larger (“more statistically robust”) studies, while others state that creating a database so that scientists do not duplicate research could help to stop animal use in laboratories from continuing to rise. For animal advocates, these 2015 guidelines are evidence that there are deep-seated problems with animal experimentation at an institutional level. If so many studies have used animals in statistically invalid ways, the overall practice of testing on animals is called into question and should be challenged.
Replace, refine, reduce: the 3 Rs of ethical animal research are widely accepted around the world. But now the message from UK funding agencies is that some experiments use too few animals, a problem that leads to wastage and low-quality results. On 15 April, the research councils responsible for channelling government funding to scientists, and their umbrella group Research Councils UK, announced changes to their guidelines for animal experiments. Funding applicants must now show that their work will provide statistically robust results — not just explain how it is justified and set out the ethical implications — or risk having their grant application rejected. The move aims to improve the quality of medical research, and will help to address widespread concerns that animals — mostly mice and rats — are being squandered in tiny studies that lack statistical power.