Wetenschap - 1 september 2011

National screening of animal experiments?

The Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals has proposed that a national ethical committee should be set up to screen applications for animal experiments. The committee would include animal rights organizations. Good idea?

'This proposal is in line with new European guidelines and the evaluation of the 25-year-old Animal Testing Law', says Elsbeth Stassen, professor of Animals and Society at Wageningen University. Stassen chairs the animal experiments committee at ID in Lelystad. 'We should have a national ethical committee. But it would not be sensible to then dissolve the animal experiments committees at universities and research institutes - of which there are more than 20.

Currently, we evaluate whether the use of lab animals for a particular research aim is ethically acceptable. We also consider the 'three Rs': how animal tests could be replaced, reduced and refined. In a considerable number of cases, we ask for clarification of the aims and for adaptation of the experiments so as to reduce the animal suffering they cause. We evaluate several hundred animal experiments every year.

Nationally, there are several thousand animal experiments each year. That is too much for a single committee to process. A national committee would only be able to evaluate testing at programme level, whereas we go into great detail at the experiment level. That is good for quality. Each animal experiments committee includes experts with relevant knowledge about medical or veterinary research. That makes it possible for us to reach an informed assessment on whether the use of lab animals could indeed be reduced, replaced or refined. A national committee would have to evaluate at a much more abstract level, creating a lot more paperwork for the researchers and reducing the attention paid to the three Rs.

A trickier question is whether the research goal is ethically acceptable. For example: do we want to make use of lab animals in research on human diseases caused by human behaviour? I wouldn't mind seeing a national ethical committee coming up with a statement on that. So I favour a hybrid form, with a national committee that screens research objectives and local committees that continue to screen animal testing at the level of the experiment.'