Rodents are currently excluded from the protective regulations of the US Animal Welfare Act. Last September the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) decided to take steps to include rats, mice and birds in the act. This decision was heavily criticized by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the National Association of Biomedical Research and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology1,2. Yet the USDA is determined to implement its decision and is planning to make it effective by October.
The opposition by these leading science organizations in the United States is not supported by the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science and also contrasts with European perspectives on the issue. Last September, the European Science Foundation (ESF) published a position paper on the use of animals in research3. The guidelines from this paper, summarized below, were adopted by the ESF assembly at the end of November.
The ESF consists of 67 leading science-funding agencies, research councils and academies of science from 23 European countries. Its role is to stimulate cooperation between national organizations and individual scientists from different countries and to advise on science policy. Its position paper states the conditions that must be met to make the use of animals for research purposes morally acceptable. The ESF encourages scientific organizations and individuals involved in animal experimentation to follow these guidelines, which can be summarized as follows:
Laboratory animals not only have an instrumental value, but also an intrinsic value, which must be respected.
While accepting the need for animals to be used to advance scientific knowledge and to promote human and animal health and well-being, the ESF strongly endorses the reduction, replacement and refinement principles.
Research to improve the welfare of animals should be encouraged and actively supported.
Before a programme of research, the proposed animal use should be evaluated independently, including an assessment of the likely benefit and suffering.
Investigators should assume that procedures that would cause pain in humans also cause pain in other vertebrates, unless there is evidence to the contrary.
Investigators should be adequately educated and trained through accredited courses on laboratory-animal science, including discussion of animal alternatives, welfare and ethics.
The ESF encourages journals to include in their publication policy a statement on the ethical use of animals.
The ESF recognizes the important role of journals in the ethical use of animals in research. It is, therefore, unfortunate that most journals publishing in this area do not have stated guidelines that must be a prerequisite for consideration of manuscripts4. A recent study shows that only 13 of 83 relevant journals contain a comprehensive statement on the ethical use of animals. In 42 journals (59%) there was no statement at all5.
The ESF guidelines demonstrate that the scientific community in Europe is leaving behind its defensive attitude, and is more proactive in expressing what it sees as standards to adhere to when it comes to the use of animals in research. This should be a benefit for animals and for science.