N8 Research Culture: From secrecy to openness, how animal research has emerged from the shadows


Mike Addelman, Media Relations Officer (Animal Research Communications Lead), Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health, University of Manchester


Many people working in animal research remember the dark days of the 1970s, 80s and 90s when small numbers of violent animal rights extremists illegally targeted individuals, businesses and universities working with animals in a range of sectors, including the life sciences. It was a frightening time, when our sector endured vandalism, harassment, arson and bombings. Of course marches, petitions and public information stalls are legal, peaceful and entirely legitimate but nowadays, even these types of campaigning against animal research are rare. 

But the legacy of those years were far-reaching. Many scientists and those working in life science institutions were forced, so to speak, into their shells, fearing attacks from the extremists, and inadvertently fostering a culture of secrecy and concealment. It was almost as if scientists who devoted their professional lives to the noble cause of advancing our understanding of health and disease so humans – and animals – could enjoy the benefits of new medicines and medical technologies were gagged, too frightened to speak about their important work. 

Ipsos MORI Polling commissioned in 2013 by the mutual organisation Understanding Animal Research (UAR) whose membership includes universities, professional societies, industry and charities – confirmed what many already guessed. Though two-thirds of the UK public said they could accept the use of animals in research for medical purposes, only 30% of the public, the poll found, felt well informed about it. And Ipsos MORI tracker polling showed that while public acceptance of animal research had consistently remained around 75%, between 2010 to 2012, there had been a drop of 10 percentage points from 76%in 1999 to 66% in 2014. It follows that a lack of reliable information on animal research could allow misconceptions to flourish, and that was something the sector had to work against. So in a response led by UAR, the sector committed to developing an openness framework called the Declaration on Openness on Animal Research, with Manchester one of the 40 organisations to sign. In May 2012, the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research was born with 72 organisations signing up, including Manchester. Now there are nine further openness agreements in the world based on the Concordat, with more to come. 

The Concordat is a set of four commitments and it’s worth repeating them here: The first is being clear about when, how and why we use animals in research. The second is to enhance communications with the media and the public about our research using animals. The third is being proactive in providing opportunities for the public to find out about research using animals and the fourth to report on progress annually and share our experiences. 

Though Manchester had signed, back in 2016 when I started working in animal research communications progress had been slow and much of our animal research work at the University remained inaccessible to the public. Misunderstanding and the occasional hostile encounter was a real possibility; something had to be done. So with the support of senior University leaders, plans were set in motion to step up our response to the concordat. 

The core of our strategy was to establish a comprehensive website and with that end in mind, an operational group of comms people and a steering committee of senior leaders gradually formulated a framework from which we were able to base our web presence. With a bit of funding and the help of gifted freelance writer, within 6 months the initial iteration of our website was live. In those days it was rare to publish detailed information, but we are proud to be one of the few institutions to break that particular mould, fostering a new spirit of openness across the sector and winning national awards in the process. Data infographics showing numbers of species used and another showing legally defined levels of suffering  are published and updated every year. 

A myth buster, minutes of ethical review body meetings and non-technical summaries of every project at the University are available, as are case studies illustrating the impact of our work on translational medicine and our scientific efforts to find alternatives, reduce numbers and refine the way we work with animals known as the 3Rs which researcher must legally demonstrate they consider when making an application for a project license. There is also information on harms a key commitment under the concordat, but the pièce de resistance is a virtual tour of our unit guided by two of our animal technicians, enabling anyone with internet access to travel around its rooms and corridors aided by videos. 

As the years have gone by, the University has become a leading exponent of openness, conducting social media campaign on X and Instagram, bringing journalists, schoolchildren students, and staff members into the unit and taking part in community science festivals. One of our videos, published on YouTube called ‘a day in the life of an animal technician’, is particularly popular. Our media campaigns highlight the role of animals in research and a Google search for ‘animal research’ regularly results in a top five placing for the University.  Even more recently, I chaired a panel debate in front of a live audience at our prestigious Whitworth hall, with senior leaders from the RSPCA, UAR and FRAME the fund for the replacement of animals in medical experiments. 

Following a public backlash in the noughties, stricter security measures, and pro-research advocacy, animal rights extremism is thankfully at an all-time low in the UK. But there is no doubt it was also supported by a concerted effort from the scientific community to better communicate their work. For years, animal rights organisations dominated the narrative, which is why many people believed animal research involved testing cosmetics and tobacco, despite them being banned in the UK. The organisations who embraced the Concordat have worked tirelessly to dispel these myths and give the public an opportunity to see the ground-breaking research, often funded by us, the taxpayer.  

That is why our work can and must continue.