Examination of Witness (Questions 960-979)
PROFESSOR COLIN BLAKEMORE, FRS,
TUESDAY 22 JANUARY 2002
960. This is, perhaps, slightly anticipating the next question and subsequent ones: we heard evidence from at least one lot of witnesses that in the last six months the climate had again changed, whereas before companies were chary about doing research involving animals in this country now they felt the threat had been lifted, they were no longer under such threat as before. Do you detect any change in the last few months? What could this be due to, if it has happened? Is it because the government has changed the law, has provided better protection or is it because there is a greater reaction against terrorism, or what?
(Professor Blakemore) I think your other witnesses this afternoon from the ABPI can speak better as to the attitudes of commercial organisations; scientists and I can only speak by hearsay. In the academic community there is recognition and gratitude for the change of the government's attitude. I think that there is a bit more of a "wait and see" approach in the academic community; they want to see what impact it will have on their security and the way in which they are able to operate. Actually there is also considerable concern about the level of bureaucracy and the impact of that on their research.
Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior
961. I was interested in the figures that you gave about the general public saying yes or no. I wonder if you could comment on the fact whether there is a full understanding on the part of the general public of what I would call statutory research, the testing of new medicines, new molecules and so on for medical or animal use for that matter, and the fundamental academic research where one is trying to discover how life organises itself. Do you feel that there is a chasm there that has not yet been bridged by the general public and by scientists, in fact, to educate the public that there is toxicity research and then there is pure fundamental research?
(Professor Blakemore) I think you are quite right that there is an obvious dichotomy between those two different areas of animal use. The fact is, of course, that they are regulated by the same Act and in many ways exactly the same principles should apply to themthe same concern for the quality of what is done, the necessity of what is done, the same concern for the welfare of the animals involved, the same concern for refinement and replacement where possible. You are absolutely right that the issues are not widely understood by the public; toxicity testing is really simply a regulatory requirement, it is not experimental in the same way that I would think of an experiment. In some ways, of course, that might lead to the kind of criticism that has been levelled against toxicity testing, that animals are not sufficiently similar to human beings, you cannot trust the results of tests on animals, and so on, but a different kind of understanding and acceptance is required when considering academic research because the outcome of it is in many cases of less obvious practical value. By definition, in the old 1876 legislation, an experiment was a procedure "the outcome of which is not known in advance". It is quite difficult to sell to the man in the street that one should use animals with the possibility of suffering for a procedure the outcome of which is not known in advance. One needs a background knowledge of the success of past research in delivering the goods, in producing benefits for people and animals, before that can be understood.
962. Thank you very much. I think if we can go to the next question. Can I say about the following questions that you actually fully answered them in your submission but, for the record, if we might have your views reiterated. What have been the direct consequences for you, your family and your friends of your well-known advocacy of animal experiments?
(Professor Blakemore) As I said, my Lord Chairman, and as you have read in my statement and you already know, I have been the target of campaigning. That is not a unique position: many scientists in the past have found themselves criticised for their research. Perhaps the difference in my reaction to it was that I decided to embrace the problem and to tackle it comprehensively and it has become a part of my life. I was so offended and outraged by what I was accused of that I felt compelled to reply to it and, therefore, found myself the focus of further campaigning and also, I think, the focus of the defence of research. As for the catalogue of things that were done, many of them have been reported in the newspapers. I think the things that were most difficult to tolerate and deal with at an emotional level were the attacks on my home, the fact that my children, who were eight, ten, and twelve, were threatened with kidnap and were under police protection for two or three months, the fact that two bombs have been delivered to my home, the first of them when my children were quite young, handled by them because both my wife and I were away for the day. That contained half a pound of explosives packed with needles and would almost certainly have been lethal. It was delivered just before Christmas looking like a Christmas gift. A huge amount of damage has been done to my home. Six cars have been very badly damaged on different occasions in my driveway. On many occasions bottles and bricks have been thrown through all the windows of the house, often at night but on one occasion at five o'clock on a Sunday afternoon by a gang of perhaps 15 people in balaclavas who poured into the driveway, tried to smash down the front door with a block of stone and when that did not succeed simply smashed every window in the house, destroyed the car windows, damaged the car and left. I think most people would not hesitate to call those kinds of action terrorism. They certainly inflict terror on their victims and on victims that are quite unprepared for that kind of attack on what they believe to be a very reasonable and well intentioned, well motivated pursuit of knowledge in the hope of making life better for people like us.
963. Thank you for that. Are there any questions particularly by way of follow-up? If not, I will go to the next question. How might the current gap between the views of those who believe in animal rights and those who do not be narrowed? At the moment we have before us a variety of evidence and both pros and antis look to be like ships passing in the day and there is not too much effective communication between the two ends of the spectrum.
(Professor Blakemore) There certainly is a problem of mutual distrust and differences in a fundamental belief. However, I would invite your Lordships to come to a meeting of the Boyd Group to see what can be done if individuals with different views on this issue get around the table and actually try to thrash out the basis of their differences and the areas of agreement. I am not sure whether your Lordships know about the Boyd Group or have been told at all about it. The Boyd Group has certainly prepared a submission for you.
(Professor Blakemore) The Group was established in 1992 by myself and Les Ward, who is the director of an abolitionist organisation, Advocates for Animals, in Edinburgh, after we had met in a stylised confrontation on, I think, the Kilroy programme on television. We both sat in the reception room afterwards talking and wondering how this kind of head to head battle could ever produce progress. We decided that much of our mutual distrust was based on misunderstanding of each other and our motives, on a failure to have information that the other had available to them, so we decided to form a group which is open to anybodyit has about 25 member organisations at the momentto discuss the whole animal issue to try to reach a consensus where that is possible, and at least to define the basis of differences where it is not. May I say, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to do this, that I hope your Lordships, if you agree when you have read my submission that the Boyd Group is useful, and it is increasingly playing a role, for instance, in Europe in discussing this issue, that you will do what you can to record that. The Boyd Group lacks representatives from some of the major national anti-vivisectionist organisations. It has all the major welfare groups, some of the abolitionist groups, it has very wide representation of the clinical and academic communities as well as theologians, moral philosophers and so on. We lack representation of the major national anti-vivisectionist groups and our credibility is reduced because of that. We need them on board around the table. Also I have raised in my submission the question of financing for the group. It is entirely self-financed at the moment by subscription, it runs on a shoestring but has additional demands on its resources which I have described, with which I hope you will be sympathetic.
965. It is implicit in your reply, would you say, that you nevertheless feel that while certain parties are not there, there is a sufficient critical mass, a spread of opinion, for it to be worthwhile. Clearly you believe that. Could you document what progress has been made, for example?
(Professor Blakemore) The progress has been quite remarkable. The Group has managed to reach unanimous views on issues that I could never have thought were possible. For instance, the Group produced a document in which it stated its consensus view that the use of animals to test finished cosmetics' products was not justified, and that was produced before the Government decision to outlaw that. It produced a statement about the possible use of local Ethical Review Processes, again shortly before the Government stated that it would introduce such processes. It has produced a definitive document on approaches to refinement and education about refinement which has been widely influential. We are just about to publish a document on the use of animals to test household products which I think will be very influential, and another one on primates, all of which involve total consensus, or very nearly so. I think that would have been very difficult to predict ten years ago. I am absolutely convinced that dialogue is the only way forward. It may not produce always complete agreement but it is very, very difficult to continue to hate someone, because there is hatred involved in this business, if you have sat for two or three hours opposite them around a table, drinking a cup of tea, thrashing out the basis of the differences of opinion.
Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior
966. I wonder if the current gap that we mentioned between those that support or those who do not support might be due to a lack of information; we have tested this idea on other witnesses of making research more public. As you probably know, in the United States when a piece of research is funded by NIH, having been approved for funding it is then available in the public domain. Would something like this help in this country? Obviously before it goes through the research and evaluation, after it has been funded and approved by the Home Office, would something of that nature be valuable to those who do not yet understand what it does in research with animals?
(Professor Blakemore) I have spent more than 25 years involved in public communication about science, including research on animals. Obviously I think that it is worthwhile. I think that the majority of my colleagues would agree with me and many of them would be prepared to put the effort into communicating the intentions of their research and value of their research. The problem is fear, and with very good reason. People are very scared to put their heads above the parapet because of the threats of intimidation and violence. If we could only remove from the equation the terrorist element I am absolutely certain that the scientific community would respond positively, as they have to the request for dialogue and public involvement in many other areas. In National Science Week, National Science Year and the BA Festival of Science scientists show they are eager to communicate what they are doing.
967. You said that your Boyd Group was founded by somebody totally opposed to all animal experiments, Leslie Ward, yet the national anti-vivisection groups will not attend. Who are the people who attend that are against all animal experiments, what kind of people are they?
(Professor Blakemore) Advocates for Animals represented by Les Ward and others is the biggest of the abolitionist groups that attend regularly. There are smaller anti-vivisection societies that send representatives. The RSPCA is present; it is an abolitionist organisation but clearly one which is very concerned about welfare issues; FRAME attends regularly. Some of the major welfare groups are there. Unless there is a reason not to name names it would be very good to see BUAV, NAVS, Uncaged, PETA and Animal Aid at the table.
968. This may be rather a small point, you talked about producing a document or an agreement about primates: do you think that the general public tend to lump all primates together and leave out some other animals that might actually be more prone to suffering than some primates are? It seems that there are rather huge concepts, like cosmetics, primates, and so on, where it is possible to be in agreement. It may not be always, from a physiological point of view, essential to cover all primates and leave in some other animals?
(Professor Blakemore) The Baroness is absolutely right. We spend a good deal of our documents discussing the fact that primates are extremely diverse in their physiology, and perhaps more significantly, in their behaviour and their cognitive abilities. In particular we compare old world monkeys, especially rhesus monkeys with new world monkeys, particularly marmosets, which are quite different in their behavioural capacity. You are right, monkeys have become iconic in the same way that cosmetics have become an image, an issue. The Act, I think, is very good in this respect in that it rules out nothing in advance and requires everything to be judged on its merits. One of the issues in deciding merit is the cognitive capacity and the potential for suffering for the particular species that is proposed to be used. We ended up in our document certainly not saying that we would support a ban on primate use, we recognise the special features of primates in general, but some species in particular.
Baroness Eccles of Moulton
969. Professor Blakemore, when you were talking about the Boyd Group you gave us some examples of where the group had recommended certain changes in the way animal experimentation takes place and in which cases you said that they were actually preempting the decisions by the government. This indicates that round the table the scientists were able to accept that certain improvements could be made. Was there any equivalent move from the other side of the table, as it were, some recognition of any sort or kind that some level of animal experimentation is actually necessary for scientific progress or not?
(Professor Blakemore) There are certainly members of the Boyd Group whose opinions on issues of principle have changed. I think it would difficult for them to articulate that publicly, but it is certainly expressed in private. Moreover, in the Boyd Group there is really only one direction in which recommendations can go. I think it is inconceivable at a gathering, even of scientists alone, where you could say, yes, we think there should be more animal research, it is in the public good. That is out of the question. Discussion in the Boyd Group is always dominated by the search for ways of reducing, refining or replacing animals. That is the issue.
970. To follow on from that, there are two questions really. One, is it not likely that there will be an increase in the number of animals used as more genetically modified animals are made for the sort of new purposes that we know they can be used for? That is one question. The second question that puzzles me is, whether it actually matters very much how many animals are used provided each individual animal is not subjected to suffering. This is a sort of metaphysical question: does it make any difference if 500 mice are used in a procedure if it is not likely to be painful or even in procedures that are moderately painful, how much does the mice suffer more from there being 500 of them rather than one?
(Professor Blakemore) This sounds like the beginning of a question of the philosophy tripos and it is probably not the way to address public opinion. I think numbers are important, frankly, because of the sheer impact when they are announced on an annual basis. They are also an indicator of change. If one sees the numbers going down then in general one sees that something is done to reduce animal use, if possible. You are quite right, however, that we must prepare ourselves for the numbers not to continue to go down as they have done so dramatically over the last 20 years because of the introduction of transgenesis and the power of those methods in biomedical sciences. This is an area where we have a big public relations job to perform, because we have to convince the public why it is necessary that numbers should go up and why it is so important these techniques should be used, because they are so potent in the capacity to deliver important medical knowledge and the possibility of understanding the treatment for diseases that are not currently treatable.
971. If we could move to the next question, and again you have addressed this in your written evidence. Do you consider that levels of bureaucracy have had an impact on the quantity or quality of animal research in the UK? You have referred in your written evidence to the delays in the awarding of licences and to the need for distinguished international scientists to get a personal licence before they can participate or collaborate. Might I couple that with a question about local Ethical Research Committees because it seems to us, although I have to say not so far in the scientific community, whether it is commercial or academic, who believe that there is a value in these things, it has occurred to us as lay people looking in at the whole procedure that it adds a level of bureaucracy and, indeed, duplication because in a way going before your local Ethical Research Committee is almost like preparing an application for the Inspectorate. Do you have any comments on that?
(Professor Blakemore) Yes, my Lord Chairman. First, on the question of whether the levels of bureaucracy have actually impeded the research, I could cite individual examples of scientists who have moved from this country or have simply abandoned areas of medical research because of the weight of bureaucracy and the effort that is involved in obtaining a licence.
972. Is that one or two anecdotes or is it of a significant size?
(Professor Blakemore) I only know of anecdotes. I think it would be very valuable to have that documented numerically. If everyone has anecdotes like mine and they are all different anecdotes then the numbers will be significant. I can quote one particular example: a colleague of mine applied for a minor amendment to an existing licence in order to use a new and superior anaesthetic in his work and it took over three months for approval. That cannot possibly be justified on animal welfare grounds. Indeed, delays as such surely are of no interest to the animal welfare issue. Once a decision can be made that research is worthwhile and the law states that worthwhile research should be done then surely it is in everyone's interest that it should be done as quickly as possible. Doing that will decrease the chance of unnecessary duplication of effort. One of the fears in the scientific community is that the very long delays in the issuing of project licences, given the speed at which science moves, will simply increase the chance that the same work will be started elsewhere and, therefore, more animals will be used.
973. What about the specific question of the duplication involved in the Ethical Research Committees and licence applications?
(Professor Blakemore) I find myself in an equivocal position because I signed up to the Boyd Group document that pointed out the advantages of local ethical review. The advantages are obvious: it builds the sense of local community, local involvement in ethical judgment, the transfer of knowledge and best practice between scientists in an institution, a sense of corporate, institutional responsibility for what goes on. Those are all very good but we equally pointed out the potential disadvantages, the increase in bureaucracy being top of the list, the duplication of process in the Home Office and in the local review. I must say that I read with interest the review recently produced by the Home Office of the Ethical Review Process and was somewhat disappointed to see that it affirms the fact that it expects cost benefit analysis to be done, at least in part, at a local level. The 1986 Act requires that the Home Office should perform a cost benefit analysis and while there may be ways of avoiding duplication of effort, for instance by the Home Office making use of the information on cost benefit analysis gathered by Ethical Review Process, there is certainly potential for the job being done twice.
974. Can you suggest ways in which the procedure of obtaining a licence or the need for amendments of licences can be simplified so that bureaucracy weighs less heavily?
(Professor Blakemore) Yes. I think that one obvious way of doing that is to introduce fast track procedures. It is widely recognised, including by the Home Office, that some judgments are in principle much easier to make than others, either because they are essentially trivial, the addition of a tiny amendment to a licence, or because much of the judgment of the quality of research and the ethical issues has already been made by others who are well informed, for instance major funding agencies, the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust. All the major agencies now require their grants panels to consider these issues, they require referees to comment on them, so the approval of funding of an area of research by such an agency is already an indication of judgment on its quality, its significance and on welfare issues. If there was a fast track procedure that could make use of that information it would be very useful. Another device would be to involve Home Office inspectors at the earliest stages in the preparation of licence applications, as was done before the introduction of local review, and their close involvement in the work of local Ethical Review Committees. It happens somewhere but not everywhere. In a sense the Home Office process runs in parallel with the local process rather than in series.
975. Do you think there is a case for dividing those who inspect and those who advise?
(Professor Blakemore) I can see arguments for involving different kinds of expert evidence in advice. On the other hand, the expertise, the knowledge of inspectors about what is done and has been done elsewhere is extremely valuable in performing cost benefit analysis on new applications. They can help licence holders prepare applications on the basis of their knowledge of how procedures have worked in other institutions. They know much better the trends of research around the country, the patterns of research and what is done elsewhere. As for involving other expert advice, scientific advice, ethical advice and so on, I think there probably is a greater capacity for that.
Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior
976. When we visited Cambridge we were told that the delay in approval of licences affected student research, people doing Part Iis, which were a term or two terms' research; it took so long to get the licence through that the term was over. Does the same happen, say, in Oxford?
(Professor Blakemore) We have had similar experiences in Oxford and, frankly, in some respects the question of student licensing is a bit of a fudge. Having to invent projects which are justified by their experimental purpose which really are concerned with education is difficult. I would identify student licences and the problem of visiting researchers and their licensing as the two main obstacles in the legislation which could probably be relatively simply dealt with. This issue of not being able to invite the most distinguished and experienced researchers from abroad really is ridiculous. As it happened, shortly before the introduction of the new licensing procedure I had a visit from a Nobel Prize winner from the United States. If he had come one year later he would have had to have gone through the full procedure for training and examination before he could participate in any research in the laboratory, and he already had the Nobel Prize. This is a hindrance to Britain's participation in the international business of research.
977. If I may just complete this, my Lord Chairman. So there would be a case here for a fast track situation for visiting scientists?
(Professor Blakemore) I think there are many very acceptable devices that could be imagined. For instance, a form of licensing under close supervision for short-term visitors with a proven track record as judged, say, by scientific publications in respectable journals, so that they are not required to go through a training and examination procedure that is designed for novices.
978. We are now on to the last two questions. Are there any animal procedures which were carried out in the past which would not now be considered acceptable today? Are there any animal experiments which you would consider to be unacceptable regardless of the potential benefit?
(Professor Blakemore) There are certainly procedures that have been sanctioned under the Act which I personally would not want to use. It is a matter of personal ethical judgment and one should not under-estimate the role of the individual scientist in making ethical judgments whatever the nature of the law. I think I can say with my hand on my heart that there has been no procedure that I have used in the past that I think now is unacceptable. I have had a licence for a procedure that I never used because, although I obtained the licence for it, I decided it was not something I would want to do. The technique involved studying electrical activity in the brain with painless techniques from animals that were not anaesthetised but were paralysed by a neuromuscular blocking agent. This is a technique which has been quite widely used in the past, for instance in the United States. I obtained permission to use it and decided not to. I simply did not like the idea in the end. On the other hand, I can see that in the commercial world, about which I do not know that much, there certainly have been changes, but they have been changes, to a large extent, not based on a new recognition of the ethical unacceptably procedures but on changes in regulations. For instance the LD 50 test, the abandonment of that, changes in the use of skin irritation tests and the Draize test, and so on. Companies have been more than willing to abandon these outdated methods when the regulatory agencies were willing to accept different forms of data.
979. With respect to the absolutes that one should not do, can I address some of the species where it is felt that one should not use these, namely the apes. There is a lot of deep feeling about this. On the other hand, it has been put to us that there may be circumstances that we cannot foresee at present, some might be rather like the AIDS virus or the Ebola virus coming out of Africa, where the only way to look at them initially is to use a higher primate. Would you, in your opinion, regardless of that statement, feel that one should never, ever use the higher primate?
(Professor Blakemore) My Lord, I agree with what I take to be your position. The problem is in being absolutely proscriptive, because it means that if circumstances do change in dramatic ways, if the human population were in danger of being eliminated by a new disease which might be studied in a higher primate, the law would have to be changed to allow that to go ahead or it would happen elsewhere. One of the great strengths of the Act is that it is not prescriptive, in a sense it started with a clean piece of paper, anything might be possible if it could be justified in terms of potential benefit and in the mitigation of pain and suffering. Some things were not, in effect, allowed using that formula. For instance, to my knowledge, there had been no work on the great apes in this country for 40 years or more before the absolute ban on such experiments. One has to ask in that context, what was achieved by the ban?