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NC3Rs: National Centre for the Replacement Refinement & Reduction of Animals in Research
Guidance

Peer review and advice service

Introduction

We work with research funding bodies to embed the 3Rs in their policies and practice. This includes reviewing research proposals and developing guidelines. These activities help to ensure that animal welfare standards are genuinely high and exceed the legal minima, and overseas work is conducted to standards equivalent to those in the UK.

Peer review of research proposals

We review grant applications for 28 funding organisations, including members of the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC), where these propose to use non-human primates, dogs, cats and equines (plus pigs for BBSRC and a minority of other funders). Other research proposals that raise special concerns can also be referred to the NC3Rs on a case-by-case basis. We advise on opportunities to implement the 3Rs, raise specific animal welfare concerns, highlight where good practice is not being adopted, and monitor implementation of specific policies and guidance. This advice is used during decisions on funding and when drafting the terms and conditions of grant awards.

We have reviewed over 1,300 proposals since 2004. Details of the organisations using our peer review service are given below. We apply the same process to research proposals submitted to NC3Rs funding schemes.

For further background information on the remit, focus and process of our peer review service, see this blog post marking the 900th completed review.

Supporting good practice through guideline development

Working with funders, we have published guidelines to promote high standards in the design, conduct, analysis and reporting of animal research. Compliance with the principles in each of the following guidelines is a condition of receiving funds for animal research:

Examples of the 3Rs impacts that our review and guidelines have achieved can be found in Table 2 of the NC3Rs Evaluation Framework report.

Further resources to support applicants seeking funding for animal research are given below.

For information on these initiatives, please contact Dr Mark Prescott.

Tips for applicants

Drawing on our experience of the past 13 years of reviews, we have put together the following ten tips to help any applicant prepare and respond to the questions we may pose during our review of their application. These tips are taken from a blog post published in February 2018 to mark our 900th completed review, which provides further details on the application process.

Flow diagram of the stages of the NC3Rs peer review process
  1. Be open and honest. The goal of our review is not to catch applicants out, or to prevent the appropriate use of animals in research. Our reviewers all have doctoral degrees and practical experience of working in animal research, as well as 3Rs expertise. They appreciate the challenges such work can present. Honesty about the potential welfare issues involved in a study protocol and its severity classification will always be received better than will obfuscation.
     
  2. Demonstrate that you’ve considered the 3Rs in your research plan. Implementation of the 3Rs is a condition of securing research funds. Therefore, demonstrate how you’ve taken these principles into account, with direct reference to your experimental design and the procedures you will use. Non-specific statements such as “We will endeavour to use the minimum number of animals at all stages of our research” are not sufficient.
     
  3. Treat the questions seriously. Pithy, dismissive answers rarely go down well in any review process. Demonstrate that you take the 3Rs and your responsibilities as an animal researcher seriously. If appropriate detail is not provided, it will mean further work for you later as the NC3Rs seeks the required information.
     
  4. Answer the questions fully, with reference to the entire application. As part of their assessment, NC3Rs reviewers will read your entire application, not just the answers to the standard questions about animal use. Answers that are inconsistent with the rest of the application, or irrelevant to the question, will be followed up. Cutting and pasting text from elsewhere in the application doesn’t usually work well.
     
  5. Be consistent. Conflicting information across sections of an application on factors such as number of animals required, procedures they will be subject to, and the institutions that will be utilised at, appear quite regularly in applications we review. Resolving these inconsistencies before submission will save time for everybody.
     
  6. Consider your justification for the choice of species fully and logically. “Special protection” means you cannot utilize these higher mammal species if another would be suitable to answer your research question. Explain in your justification for the choice of species why no other species would be suitable. Try to avoid broad generalisations such as “Non-human primates are more similar to man” and instead focus on providing a scientific rationale (e.g. lack of the anatomical structures, pathways, targets or behaviours of interest in other species).
     
  7. Always back up your animal numbers. Incomplete or indiscernible justifications for the number of animals required in an application will always result in further questions from our reviewers. This can be avoided by providing the workings of your sample size calculation (where one is appropriate), stating each of the variables and the software used to perform the calculation. Be sure to justify your chosen effect size (i.e. the magnitude of response which would be of scientific or clinical interest and worthy of further investigation) and variability (e.g. based on your previous experiments or the published literature).
     
  8. Consider submitting an EDA diagram or report as part of your application. By providing tailored feedback on the design of your experiment and supporting power calculations, randomisation and blinding, use of the Experimental Design Assistant (EDA) sends a strong signal to reviewers (both scientific and 3Rs) that your experimental design has been optimised to yield the best possible data from the lowest number of animals. Many funding bodies (e.g. NC3Rs, BBSRC, MRC) recommend use of this free online tool and we already see EDA diagrams included within applications. Applicants will soon be able to upload an EDA PDF report as part of their application, summarising the essential information the panel want to see on experimental design.
     
  9. Pick your CRO wisely. If requesting funds for drug safety and efficacy studies, choose an appropriate contract research organisation (CRO). The cheapest option will likely fall below the animal welfare standards required in the UK and expected by the funders. If you haven’t yet chosen a CRO, let us know and don't give speculative answers. If funded, it is likely that your award will be ‘milestoned’ with release of funds for studies with higher species made conditional on a satisfactory NC3Rs review once the contractor has been chosen.
     
  10. Use the guidelines and 3Rs resources available from the NC3Rs. There is a wealth of information available on the NC3Rs to website to support you in applying the 3Rs and meeting funders’ expectations in this regard. Some key resources are given below.

Use of animals overseas

All researchers funded by the MRC, BBSRC, EPSRC, NERC, NC3Rs, Defra, Wellcome Trust and other AMRC charities, who use animals, are required to implement the guidance ‘Responsibility in the Use of Animals in Bioscience Research’ as a condition of grant funding. A key principle (page 14) is the expectation that research conducted overseas should be carried out to welfare standards consistent with those in the UK.

For studies using non-human primates, cats, dogs or equines, this is assessed during NC3Rs review of research proposals. For studies involving other species, applicants are recommended to complete the following checklist as appropriate, and include it in their application, for consideration by the funder’s review panel:

For animal research overseas, some research councils require a signed statement from both UK and overseas principal investigators – see the MRC and BBSRC websites for details.

Choosing contractors for animal research

The NC3Rs has produced a PDF presentation to remind applicants of the animal welfare standards expected by the major UK public funding bodies. Applicants contracting out animal research or collaborating with other laboratories (regardless of species) are advised to view the presentation well in advance of submitting their application, especially if the intention is to place the work outside of the UK.