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Bioscientists prepare to justify animal research

BIS poll may reveal public disapproval, researchers rally round

Animal researchers and science campaign groups are preparing to fend off damaging press coverage of a forthcoming opinion poll that shows a decline in public support for their work.

Public support for the use of animals in research has fallen by around two percentage points since 2011, according to sources who have seen the results of a poll commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and conducted by Ipsos MORI.

Members of the UK Biosciences Sector Coalition, which includes the pressure group Understanding Animal Research, as well as the Association of Medical Research Charities, the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, have met to plan how to respond to a potential media and public backlash.

One employee of a medical research charity who has seen the unpublished data says that a two percentage point drop is within an acceptable margin of error. A BIS spokeswoman says: “The Ipsos MORI report on views on animal research is not yet finalised and we will look to publish next month.”

One possible line of defence that the scientists are being urged to use is to say that they support complete transparency around using animals in research. The London-based Science Media Centre, which is also involved in discussions, is keen on such a message. “We have approached BIS and offered to help them communicate this poll,” confirmed SMC chief executive Fiona Fox. “We’re still waiting to hear from them.”

A spokeswoman for BIS did not confirm that the SMC would be handling the release. The SMC is pre-emptively arranging a press briefing, tentatively scheduled for 19 October. The briefing will either launch the report or, if BIS does not agree to the SMC handling the release, will feature researchers talking openly about their work.

The new poll is the eighth to have been carried out on this topic by MORI since 1999. Previous studies have been commissioned by BIS, by predecessor departments of BIS, the Medical Research Council and also New Scientist magazine.

The last poll was commissioned by BIS and surveyed 997 people in 2011. It found that the proportion of adults who agree with animal experiments for all types of research where no alternatives exist was 54 per cent, a drop of two percentage points from the 2010 figure. If the wording of the question in the 2012 poll is the same, it would indicate a downward trend of two percentage points each year from 2009 to 2011.

Other sources, who declined to be named, have told Research Fortnight that because questions have changed over successive polls, it is difficult to compare results year on year. One said that BIS was not happy with a draft version of this year’s poll results and met MORI staff on 22 August to discuss this.

The timing of the survey coincides with the appointment of communications professional Wendy Jarrett as the new chief executive of Understanding Animal Research. Jarrett, who will start on 19 November, has a track record of generating media coverage in support of animal research for the Coalition for Medical Progress.

Upon Jarrett’s appointment, UAR chairwoman Frances Balkwill said, “Wendy is just the right person to take UAR forward as we increase our focus on pro-active communication about research using animals.”

Research Fortnight understands that UAR is playing a central role in planning the release of the BIS report, but the organisation did not respond to a request for comment. Speaking to Research Fortnight in August, UAR’s media and public affairs manager Chris Magee said that those most opposed to animal research tend to be late teens to early 40s with below average education.

According to Paul Flecknell, a vet who is responsible for the management of Newcastle University’s animal research facilities, media coverage of animal research is not the threat it once was. “We recently had one of our researchers [who works with mice] interviewed in the local press and there’s been no backlash,” he said.