Report on Meeting of Exeter Animal Welfare & Ethical Review Group, November 2013.
As the new lay member of this group (on behalf of Exeter U3A) I attended their meeting at the Exeter Campus. Other members comprised academics doing research using animals; senior technicians directly responsible for day to day animal welfare; a vet (who has the power to immediately stop any project); and the Chief Operating Officer - the most senior university administrator, who holds overall legal responsibility.
We viewed the animals involved; oversaw the licences granted for projects and to individual academics; and ensured that both welfare and procedures lived up to the very stringent legislative requirements. My role is to ask awkward questions, which I did!
Report on Ethical Review Group: Use of Animals in Research, March 2014
Universities throughout the country are having to make sure that they have checked all their procedures very thoroughly, as last year an animal rights group infiltrated the animal labs at Imperial College in London, and found that everything was not quite as rigorously checked as it should have been.
I think this outcome is admirable, as every effort should be taken to ensure that as few animals as possible are used, in the least intrusive manner, and only if all other approaches have been ruled out.
Consequently, Exeter has decided to double the frequency of meeting of the Animal Welfare ethical review Group, which I attend as a lay member, through the U3A. In future, everyone who wants to do such research will have to attend a meeting in person, rather than just have their research checked by email correspondence. As my main role is to ask awkward questions, I hope to do just that, to ensure that there is sufficient justification for allowing the research.
In general, however, the studies done here tend not to be very invasive – there is no study currently that rates a Severe grading (the most aggressive grading allowed under the stringent legislation).
Exeter Social Sciences and International Studies (SSIS) Research Ethics Committee, 8th October 2014
Having been introduced to the University by Exeter U3A as a potential “lay member” of this committee, I attended my first meeting in October. It was scheduled to last two hours, and lasted exactly that – academics are busy people!
It might be worth explaining the role of the SSIS Committee. Put briefly, research projects – from both staff and postgraduate students –which involve interviews, questionnaires or observation of people need to be submitted for an ethical review. Submissions come in the form of a completed template providing information about how the project will deal with key ethics issues. Most are approved, some are approved with modifications, and a few are sent back as unacceptable.
“Ethics” in this context is about ensuring that both the interests of the subjects of the research (eg interviewees) and of the researchers themselves are protected. For example, it is a key ethical principle that interviewees should understand the purposes and benefits of the research, how the information collected in the interview will be stored, how their identities will be safeguarded, and that participation is entirely voluntary. This is often described as giving “informed consent”. The ethics committee will want to be satisfied that the design of the research project enables informed consent to be given.
Proposals also need to identify any risks to interviewees and researchers so that the committee can assess whether these are being adequately managed. Given that the committee’s remit covers International Studies projects – many of which involve fieldwork in the Middle East – this is a particularly important issue for us.
As Exeter University’s role as a research university grows, so will the number of research projects for ethics review. I look forward to making a contribution.
University of Exeter Animal Welfare Ethical Review Board, September 2015
It‟s very easy to imagine that all animal research involves slightly scary scientists in white coats doing unpleasant things to rats in cages, all in rather hidden away laboratories. In fact, a lot of the research done at Exeter happens out in the countryside, with scientists wearing cagoules and wellies or even wetsuits, rather than white coats. For example, there‟s a recent project that‟s looking at the best ways to establish new colonies of small rodents such as polecats and pine martens in the wild – they‟ve been dying out in this country. The board had to decide if the tracking mechanisms used and ways of sampling animal health could be done in such a way to minimise suffering. Another study looked at crows in the wild, to try to understand more about their intelligence and how they use this to survive. This type of knowledge about animal behaviour can be of great help in animal management and conservation in the wild. In this case, the board debated whether the blood sampling (to detect sex – male & female crows look the same!)and removal of a feather (to test for stress hormones) could be done in the least invasive way. A slightly scarier study is investigating the distribution of sharks in the waters of South West England. Shark populations are declining globally (mainly due to human action), & knowledge about where and when various shark species are present can aid in effective management of them in the world‟s seas. This study required sharks to be caught, tagged and small blood and tissue samples taken. The board had to debate the most effective ways in which this would cause the least distress and pain to the sharks. So it‟s not all white coats and rats!
Animal Welfare Ethics Committee – University of Exeter, March 2016
As some of you know, through the U3A, I’m the lay member on this committee. We rigorously scrutinise all research that the university does on vertebrate animals, and have considerable powers to ensure that it’s done to the highest possible standards. This includes the power to shut down research that doesn’t meet these standards.
As animal welfare is at the heart of all of this, the RSPCA provides invaluable support and advice, particularly to lay members. I had a fascinating day at the Royal Society in London in December meeting lay members from all over the country and hearing presentations organised by the RSPCA.
The RSPCA rightly emphasise that good animal welfare essential for good science. When animals are stressed or suffering, they may appear outwardly normal, but their bodies can be affected in a number of ways. These changes can influence the scientific results gained from them, and make the research much less reliable. So reducing suffering and improving welfare in as many ways as possible makes better science. And better results from the research means that fewer animals are involved.
The RSPCA provides valuable information to help non-scientific lay members (such as me) to question everything that’s done. The fundamental questions that I (and all the other members of the committee) ask are:
• What animals are you going to use, and how many of them?
• How can you ensure that you use as few animals as possible?
• What will be the harms to these animals, and how will you limit these?(And we need to make sure that these harms are avoided or minimised).
• What alternatives did you use and consider before embarking on the use of animals in your research?
• How will you ensure the general welfare of these animals?
• What will be the expected benefits from the research?(Includes considering whether all scientific knowledge is worthwhile, and thinking about who actually benefits from it.)
It’s good to know that there’s an organisation that provides extensive backup and support to aid in asking what can be quite difficult questions of experienced and senior researchers. They produce a Lay Members Resource book that helps provide information to ask the common sense questions that are the whole reason for people like me being on the committee.
UNIVERSITY OF EXETER SOCIAL SCIENCES AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES (SSIS) RESEARCH ETHICS COMMITTEE
I’ve now been a member of this committee for two years, having been introduced to the University by the Exeter U3A University Liaison Team as a potential “lay member” – that’s someone with no direct connection to the university and its research. I had no experience of research ethics either, though it’s easy enough to read up on. An Exeter academic, and a former member of this committee, Dr Hannah Farrimond has written an excellent book on the subject entitled Doing Ethical Research (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) and she’s now working on an updated edition.
It might be worth explaining the role of a research ethics committee. Put briefly, our job is to ensure that when research projects are being carried out both the interests of the subjects of the research (eg interviewees) and of the researchers themselves are protected. For example, it is a key ethical principle that interviewees should understand the purposes and benefits of the research, how the information collected in the interview will be stored, how their identities will be safeguarded, and that participation is entirely voluntary. This is often described as giving “informed consent”. The ethics committee will want to be satisfied that the design of the research project enables informed consent to be given.
All research proposals - from staff and postgraduate students – which involve interviews, questionnaires or observation of people need to be submitted for an ethical review. Submissions come in the form of a completed template providing information about how the project will deal with key ethics issues. Most are approved, some are approved with modifications, and a few are sent back as unacceptable. For anyone interested, the detailed procedures and guidance are at http://intranet.exeter.ac.uk/socialsciences/ethicscommittee/
Exeter University is divided into four Colleges plus a Business School and a Medical School. The Colleges are clusters of academic departments, and the College of Social Sciences and International Studies is a broad church. It covers: Arab and Islamic Studies; Education;the Environment and Sustainability Institute; Law; Politics; Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology;and the Strategy and Security Institute This makes for an interesting and diverse range of research proposals coming to the committee: political conflict, achieving happiness, school learning methods, and sheep have all figured in our agendas, and there is much, much more!
What does the “lay member” do? There’s no agreed definition of the role, and it seems to vary between committees even within the same university. I see it as twofold. First, as just another voice checking compliance of a proposal with ethical requirements. This doesn’t require knowledge of the subject area – indeed, because each department within the College nominates a representative to the committee it is often the case that no one present is expert on the subject area. Second, as an outside voice to help secure the balance between the benefits claimed for the research and the risks to participants in delivering it.Striking this balance is well-understood by the rest of the committee, but the research councils and others who require ethical approval before funding research see the presence of someone from outside the research community as an important longstop.
UNIVERSITY OF EXETER SOCIAL SCIENCES AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES (SSIS) RESEARCH ETHICS COMMITTEE
I’ve been the lay member of the Research Ethics Committee in the University’s College of Social Sciences and International Studies (SSIS) for 3 years now. It was the Exeter U3A’s University Liaison Team who suggested me in the first place, and I’m very glad they did because it’s a fascinating experience.
SSIS covers Arab and Islamic Studies, Education, Law, Politics , Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology so the research proposals we review are varied indeed. Each of the departments within SSIS has an academic representative on the Committee, as does the Graduate School of Education. All Committees are expected to have a lay member, that is someone unconnected with the University. The Committee meets 5 or 6 times a year, with the ability to review urgent applications in between meetings.
Why do we have ethics approval for research projects? The first point to make that approval is needed only if the researcher is going engage with live subjects, whether human or animal. You don’t need ethical approval to research what Henry VIII got up to. But the point of requiring approval before contacting live subjects is, in brief, to stop researchers pursuing their own interests to the possible detriment of their research subjects.
Before the research begins, staff and students have to fill in a form and submit it to the relevant ethics committee. For any given application for ethics approval, we ask six questions:
Does the research show respect for the subjects, specifically a commitment to seeking informed consent to participate, respect for privacy, confidentiality and anonymity, and care for vulnerable people?
Is there a benefit from doing the research, whether directly for the participants or more generally to society?
Is there a risk of harm, either to the subject or to the researcher?
Is the research proposal fair and equitable, in terms of who is invited to participate or excluded from it and who will benefit?
Does the proposal provide assurance that the researcher has integrity and will be honest in delivering on promises made to subjects?
Is academic freedom to design, conduct and disseminate research freely respected
Answering these questions is not always straightforward, which is why the collective wisdom of a committee is helpful in reaching conclusions. Most applications are approved, often with minor changes, though a few are sent back for substantial revision. So next time you’re asked to participate in a survey from a university, feel reassured that it’s been through the scrutiny mill
University of Exeter Animal Welfare Ethical Review Board
More usually known as the AWERB, I sit as the Lay Member on this committee. The other members are mainly scientists from different disciplines at the university, those technicians directly involved in the animal care and a vet. We meet 6 or 7 times a year to go through all proposals for research using animals with a fine tooth comb, as well as keeping an eagle eye on all other aspects of animal care and welfare at the university.
The Home Office also has Inspectors who rigorously check all that this AWERB does and ensure that it’s in line with the extensive legislation governing using animals in research. We have to ensure that the harm done to any animals is (in our opinion) outweighed by the benefit to humans or other animals. We check the 3Rs for every research proposal i.e. Replacement – can the use of animals be avoided completely, by test tube research or computer simulation, for example? Reduction – can the number of animals used be reduced? And Refinement – can the procedures carried out have less severe effects on the animals?
Much of my role is to ask the simple questions that any member of the public might – and to see that the answers given are adequate. If the AWERB isn’t happy with the researcher’s responses, we can send the proposal back to be amended.
The University has in the past had only a small amount of animal research, but this is increasing as the Medical School grows, and the Living Systems Institute (LSI) become more research active. The LSI is the enormous new building that’s gone up recently on the Streatham Campus and houses a wide range of scientists who deal with a range of living systems and the diseases that affect them.
Much of the research focuses on such diseases as dementia, epilepsy and diabetes, sometimes at a basic level that will take a long time to feed through to clinical application, and sometimes much more immediately applicable. The animals used are mainly mice and zebra fish. There are no cats, dogs or primates involved.
Animals such as pheasants, pine martens and bats are also involved, but with minimal intervention (e.g. tagging or snipping some fur), in ecological, behavioural and conservation research.
The researchers constantly strive to avoid using animals, but ‘alternative’ tests and models have yet to be developed that can properly reproduce the complex biological characteristics of humans and animals, and studies of wild animals in their natural environment will always require the involvement of the animals themselves.