Time is ripe for better monitoring of UK efforts to improve the lot of laboratory animals

Annual Home Office statistics cannot reveal progress with the 3Rs.

The organisation delivering the Coalition Government's pledge to work to reduce the use of animals in scientific research has introduced the first-ever framework to measure impact in this field. The new Evaluation Framework from the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) sets out a range of metrics for measuring the impact of its work, recognising that the Home Office's annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals are too broad-brush to be used as a gauge of progress. 

"The NC3Rs has always taken measurement of impact very seriously," said Head of Research Management, Dr Mark Prescott. "We invest public money and have a duty to show it is well spent. What we are now putting in place is the means to get better quality information that will give a much more meaningful picture of how things are improving in the laboratory and in the animal house and also where more needs to be done."

The new Framework is the result of an expert group review of the NC3Rs' existing approach to evaluation that was led by Professor Jamie Davies of the University of Edinburgh. At the launch of the Framework at the House of Commons on 2 July, Professor Davies said: "Successful application of the 3Rs across the UK means that there is now far more information to capture: presenting detailed information on the reduction of the most harmful procedures, and on gains in animal welfare, serves the public interest much more than would a focus on a crude total of all animals used. Clear case studies showing how better research can result from reducing animal experiments are also a powerful incentive for even more scientists to pick up on 3Rs advances to achieve better science, for the benefit of humans and other animals."

Expert group member, Dr Maggy Jennings, Head of the Research Animals Department, RSPCA, confirmed that 3Rs improvements are evident. "I have been working in this area for over 20 years and have seen increasing application of the 3Rs over that time, particularly in laboratory animal housing," she said "Being able to measure progress and identify where more action is needed is vital. The NC3Rs Evaluation Framework will undoubtedly help more people appreciate what can and should be done."

The Framework has four stages:

  1. Inputs (Activities and resources provided by the NC3Rs, including research funding)
  2. Outputs/outcomes (Initial results, such as scientific publications arising from funded research)
  3. Interim impacts (Changes in perception, policy and practice)
  4. Mature impacts (Replacement, reduction and refinement)

A wide array of supporting metrics has been identified for each stage; the NC3Rs will apply these to its 3Rs programmes to monitor and evaluate delivery.

"The primary goal has been to assess our impact," said Dr Prescott, "Nevertheless, our partnerships with many of the UK's major scientific organisations provides an opportunity to use the framework to create a national barometer on the 3Rs. In our opinion the Home Office's statistics on animal procedures are too often misused for this purpose by anti-vivisection and other campaigning organisations. The statistics are not, and were never intended to be, a gauge of progress in applying the 3Rs in the UK.

"The Home Office statistics reflect a highly dynamic scientific landscape. The total number of animals used fluctuates in response to, for example, strategic investments in particular research areas by the major funding bodies, or decisions by companies to scale back their UK R&D operations.

"New technologies emerge. One only has to look at the impact of techniques for genetically modifying animals an increase of 42% in animal procedures since 2001. And then there are changing regulatory requirements for animal use. The most significant is the EU's REACH regulation, which could increase enormously the number of animals used for chemical safety testing. Inevitably, these factors mask what is happening with the 3Rs.

"For all these reasons and more, a better means of monitoring progress with the 3Rs is required. The NC3Rs Evaluation Framework will meet this need."

To demonstrate how the new Evaluation Framework will operate, it has already been applied to four NC3Rs programmes (full details are contained in the report 'Evaluating progress in the 3Rs: The NC3Rs framework'): 

  • Integrating the 3Rs into the policies of the major public funders of animal research

Some 20-30% of the research funded by the MRC, BBSRC and Wellcome Trust involves the use of animals. The NC3Rs reviews research proposals and develops guidelines to embed the 3Rs in the policies and practices of these organisations.

  • Improving the welfare of non-human primates

The NC3Rs has delivered a comprehensive programme of symposia, journal articles and websites to improve the welfare of the approximately 3,000 non-human primates used in UK research each year.

  • In the regulatory field, challenging the requirement for acute toxicity studies in rodents

Starting in 2004, the NC3Rs encouraged 18 pharmaceutical companies and contract research organisations to share data on the only test in pharmaceutical development where death of the animals is the endpoint. A 70% reduction in animal use - 15,000 animals per year - was achieved. Ultimately, the regulatory requirement for this test was removed from the international guidelines.

  • Long-term programmes in asthma research

This reflects the concern that the whilst animal models have played an important role in understanding asthma and identifying potential drug targets, they have proven less successful over the past 50 years in finding better treatments. The NC3Rs is investing in research to develop improved models based on the latest technologies, with reduced reliance on animals.


Notes for Editors:

For further information please contact the NC3Rs media office.

  1. About the NC3Rs: The NC3Rs is a scientific organisation which leads the discovery, development and promotion of new ways to replace, reduce and refine the use of animals in research and testing (the 3Rs). It is primarily supported by Government, but also receives funding from the charitable and industrial sectors. The Centre has an annual budget of approximately £5.5 million and is the UK’s major funder of 3Rs research. 

  2. The Evaluation Framework and four illustrative case studies showing how it can be applied to the Centre's research funding activities and in-house programmes are contained in the report ‘Evaluating progress in the 3Rs: The NC3Rs framework': www.nc3rs.org.uk/evaluationreport 


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