In Defence of “Animal Testing” at Glasgow University

Published

Rachel Kerr

There has been a lot of activism on campus since the recent revelation that plans for the new University campus redevelopment includes a £5m animal holding facility, approved without student consultation. Several groups have begun to plan petitions and to bring motions to the SRC, and a piece was published by the Glasgow Guardian itself regarding the issue.

However, there is a quieter voice on campus with an opinion on the matter, and this voice is arguably the most important one to hear. It is the voice of the medical veterinary life science (MVLS) students, as they are the students who already have and will use such facilities. I myself am a GU life science graduate and current medical student, and have had personal involvement with the animal experimentation that goes on within the University. My studies have been very much enhanced by the experience. As the current SRC MVLS Undergraduate Convenor, my aim is to shed a little light on the University’s participation in animal experimentation, and the impact any action regarding this would have on its students.

Firstly, “animal testing” seems to be the term of choice, and it is one that is misleading in its implications. Upon hearing this, many assume some sort of cosmetic testing must go on, and may forget that it is simply referring to scientific research. A knee-jerk reaction can often ensue due to a massive lack of awareness and publicity about what this “testing” entails, and what actually goes on within the University. The use of animals in scientific research has been integral to its progress, and whether we like it or not, it is the way it always has and always will be. Many are unaware that an animal house already exists on campus, due to its lack of signposting and publicising. I would even argue that a new and improved facility would provide much better conditions for the animals kept than the current, which is old and neglected.

Medical and scientific research uses animals universally. The college of MVLS at the University is no different, as we are a research and innovation-led institution. The skill sets students gain from this research are essential in the world of work, and it would be very unlikely that they be employed in a life science domain without them. Students would graduate from the University at a disadvantage in an already difficult employment environment, entering a world of work where the use of animals is the status quo without any prior personal experience. Medical students who undertake an intercalated year (a year out in a life science subject) would also miss out on this opportunity, making an intercalated degree a lot less desirable, as their CV would not be enhanced with these skills.

Postgraduate students can often feel under-supported by universities, and from my experience on SRC council I understand that this is also true here. Two institutes aiming to utilise the new animal facility, as referenced in the Glasgow Guardian, are the Glasgow Biomedical Research Centre (GBRC) and the Glasgow Cardiovascular Research Centre (GCRC). These are institutes that are primarily for postgraduate research, and also play a key role in the University’s research reputation. It is interesting to note that cardiovascular disease is one of the biggest killers in the West of Scotland, and that we are the most prominent research centre in the West of Scotland. To cut funding to this, as scrapping new facilities would be, would halt progression in their research, while also disadvantaging those postgraduate studies.

Any animal research conducted within the University is very tightly regulated, and bound by legislation. The University adheres to the ethics of the “3 R’s” of animal experimentation: reduce number of animals used, refine experiments to prevent animal suffering, and replace with suitable alternatives. I have had personal experience of these during my time in life sciences, and have used computer simulations on many occasions. Understandably this cannot always be the case, as hypotheses are often disproved once living tissue is incorporated into experiments. It is impossible to predict all possible outcomes. Therefore research for an Honours level thesis, for example, cannot be done using a computer simulation alone; it would not be reasonable to ask this of students. UK legislation regarding animal experimentation is stringent, and is regulated by the Home Office. A project license for the premises describing the purposes of the experiment is required, as well as a personal license which requires completion of an animal handling training course. A Home Office inspector may appear at the premises at any time and check that all regulations are being adhered to. There are also institutional ethics committees who approve every procedure, and such is the case at Glasgow. It is clearly a very bureaucratic affair, and any use of animals in procedures is certainly not taken lightly.

Before making any wide-reaching changes to university life, no matter the subject, it is important to consider the implications for any students involved – in this case, MVLS students using these facilities. Any proposals put forward to cut all animal testing, or suggestions of alternatives, should be extensively researched and deemed to be feasible. There should be precedent elsewhere, and proof that the University’s research would not be halted in any way. Also, there should be consideration of what message such action would be sending out: that the learning and teaching experience of certain students at Glasgow should be disadvantaged in comparison to other institutions because of a personal objection? That cutting-edge research currently carried out at the University should not be in alignment with the rest of the scientific domain? That the ethical legislation already surrounding animal experimentation is simply not sufficient, despite it being revised as recently as 2013 and implemented across the EU? I do definitely acknowledge, however, that this is a debate that should have happened before any plans at all were approved and that student involvement should have been sought. I hope I have achieved some clarification on what is traditionally a guarded and controversial issue, and that animal experimentation may not be such a black and white issue as is often portrayed.