The case for pro-active communications of animal statistics

Every year the United Kingdom’s Home Office (the UK ministerial department of internal affairs) publishes its statistics on animals used in scientific procedures. The statistics are announced at a press briefing at which journalists can question the numbers of animals used and researchers place them in their scientific context. Now a yearly opportunity to openly discuss the need for animals in research, these press briefings were first organised as a counterweight to a negative, one-sided narrative as promoted by anti-animal research activists.

A platform for the voice of science

In the 1990s, anti-animal research activism was prominent in the UK. Activists had built good relationships with journalists they knew would cover animal research stories in a way that would promote their cause. At the same time, scientific establishments held their tongue in the misguided belief this would shield them from activism. As a result, media coverage of animal research was highly unbalanced and the general public was denied the scientific perspective. Animal research, as well as issues such as genetically modified crops and the safety of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, were often badly reported. This situation directly led to the setting up of the Science Media Centre (SMC). By improving the relationship between scientific institutions and the media, the SMC aimed to provide a platform through which the voice of science could be heard by the general public. One of their first points of action was to tackle the one-sided coverage of the UK Home Office’s annual statistics on the use of animals in research.

Turning the tables

These statistics were previously quietly published on the Home Office website. There, they were quickly picked up by anti-animal research activists who stood at the ready with incriminating press packages which they instantly relayed to their media contacts. Scientific institutions on the other hand kept quiet, hoping they would escape scrutiny. The SMC made a point to turn the tables on this situation – no longer would scientists have to defensively react to the statistics.

Since 2004, the publication of the UK statistics is handled very differently. The SMC invites the nation’s science journalists to a briefing where they can quiz the Home Office as well as scientists from public and private research institutions about the latest statistics. This approach has moved coverage of animal research statistics from the news, politics or comment desks to the science desk. Journalists are invited to study the numbers and ask critical questions about the data. Leading scientists are present to place the numbers, and any changes, in their scientific context – specifically regarding those species of which there are notable changes in number.

This pro-active approach to the publication of animal research statistics has robbed activists of an opportunity to promote myths about animal research to an unsuspecting media. The release of the statistics now provides the scientific community with a platform to inform the public about the continued need for animals in research. The publication date of the annual statistics has transformed from something to be dreaded, into an eagerly anticipated moment in the communications calendar.

New EU reporting requirements – an opportunity to put research in context

From 2015 onward, member states of the European Union will report animal research statistics as specified in European Directive 2010/63/EU (Article  54(2)). This makes the need for a contextualised press briefing greater than ever. The numbers over 2014 are the first to include animals used in the breeding process of genetically altered animals. From this year, animals are counted at the end of their use in research rather than the beginning, as was previously the case. As a result, some animals will be counted in both the 2013 and 2014 reports. These and other changes in reporting requirements will almost certainly result in an increase of the total number of animals used. With new reporting requirements being instated this year, it is especially important that the media receive guidance in interpreting the data.

European countries should use the publication of the animal research statistics to proactively engage with the media and nurture sound relationships. In the UK, the statistics are now a yearly opportunity to tell the public about the numbers of animals used in research, the role of animals in scientific research, as well as regulations and aspects of animal research that should be improved. Other countries would do well to follow in this example of proactive communication of the yearly statistics. This open approach will allow the scientific sector to reshape media coverage from a one-sided, negative narrative to a balanced, evidence-based conversation rooted in scientific context.

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