On July 1st, 2021, the very first Be Open about Animal Research Day social media campaign, organised by the European Animal Research Association (EARA), went live. The slogan ‘Get On #BOARD21’ was used to encourage institutions and organisations to join the conversation and celebrate the proactive approach of being open to the public about the importance of using animals in research.
To learn more about the exciting campaign, I spoke to Ana Barros, the Communications Officer at EARA, who ran the project. Ana has worked in science communications for over four years after moving from a role in research and discovering a passion of bridging the gap between academia and public knowledge.
Working with a number of European institutions, the EARA team were delighted to find that there countries all over the world wanted to take a more proactive approach and be more transparent with the work that they do. This enthusiasm was the kickstart to the #BOARD21 campaign, and subsequently the hashtag made its way all across the globe. During its 24-hour period, there were individuals and institutions taking part on every continent on the planet.
A range of engaging and exciting content was available to indulge in throughout the day. EARA shared industry examples of transparency through statements from facilities and organisations, important figures, infographics, articles and Q&A sessions. They even held several Instagram live sessions in different languages such as English, Portuguese, Greek, Dutch and Polish!
As well as the live sessions, the social media content was also in a range of languages. Ana explains that “English is the ‘international language of science’, but we really want the public to understand why we use animals in research, which is why we use different languages”. It’s important when communicating and being open to the public that information is completely accessible. Following the campaign, EARA have also been proactively translating this material so that the outreach can achieve its full potential.
Opening the Conversation
Speaking to people who have been in the industry for many years, it has been interesting to focus on the dramatic shift from past experiences. After speaking to Adrian Woodhouse, Development Training Manager at Red Kite Veterinary Consultants and Institute of Animal Technology Council member, he reaffirmed other accounts of a pre-existing “culture of fear” after seeing first hand just how upsetting it could be to simply do your job while protests were rife. Adrian began his journey in the industry as a cage washer in 1996 before moving onto an Animal Technician role and working his way up, eventually gaining qualifications to be an MIAT before shifting into his role at Red Kite Veterinary Consultants.
As someone who grew up around the industry, our very own Nicky Windows echoed these statements, “My parent’s workplace was attacked and we had to check under the family car every day for devices. Fast forward 40 years and thankfully the public is now much better informed and the value of animal research is better understood. We still have a way to go, but I am proud of the care and commitment shown to every research animal in the UK by the fabulous people who work in this industry. The key to this public understanding is openness and I thoroughly advocate the ongoing openness campaign.”
Adrian also thinks companies are now much more willing to share and be proud of their work and not live behind closed doors. He told us he believes that “With the amount of success that research has had and the breakthroughs that have been made, people are more open to what we’re doing”.
It was found in a public survey carried out by Understanding Animal Research in the first UK lockdown (March 2020) that 73% of participants accepted that scientific research using animals such as mice, dogs and monkeys, would be important to developing treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.
With over 30 years experience, mixed between pharmaceutical work and biomedical engineering facility ETISENSE, Corinne Simon-Madec has reflected on her own challenges. She explains how “This was not an easy-going topic for social conversations with relatives or friends.” But also believes that “this is going to evolve thanks to openness and transparency from the researchers regarding what they are doing, how they are managing their research using animals, and more importantly, why they are doing so."
Openness and transparency in animal research has gained traction in Europe for several years. The UK is believed to be somewhat of a standard setter after the ‘Concordat on Openness’ was introduced by Understanding Animal Research in 2014. Universities now often have their research programmes on their websites and we also have the National Centre for 3Rs pushing for Replacement, Reduction & Refinement across the board. The strict Home Office standards mean that a strict level of consistency to ensure safe and best practices is also firmly kept in place.
EARA now has steps in place to help to create similar transparency agreements for other European countries, already in place in Spain, Portugal, Belgium and France. Notably, Ana was particularly pleased to see the German transparency agreement published during the Get on BOARD campaign.
Reflecting on her extensive time in the industry, Corinne also recognised how COVID has helped this subject. She sees how “the general population can now better understand, through the development of vaccines, how much animal research was instrumental in getting those safe vaccines, rapidly”.
While we still lack complete viable alternatives, it is essential that we find ways to coherently explain to the public why animals still need to be used in research.
But speaking to us from Tierversuche verstehen in Germany, Dr Roman Stilling (who is also an EARA board member) reminds us that these social initiatives are just as important to the scientific community as they are the public, saying “Campaigns like #BOARD21 provides community building and shows the solidarity within the community”.
Dr stilling went on to explain "Public outreach is considered ever more important and more resources are allocated to it." Though insecurities around discussing research are actively recognised...
"There are still a lot of topics that are a taboo or are exempted from this new openness. Most scientists love to talk about their breakthrough results, but the hard work, the methods and the iterative research process are often neglected."
There has unfortunately been a lot of pressure to completely remove the use of animals in Europe. Members of European Parliament have actually been pushing a strategy for phasing out animal research entirely.
There is also still a level of hostility from the public. At the time of writing, a permanent protestors camp has been set up outside of a UK facility which has gained a lot of attention from activists and animal lovers.
Dr Stilling also recognised that while academics and professionals are “afraid of becoming a target for animal rights activism” he believes “a much greater and real threat is that the research community exaggerates the benefits of animal research and not faithfully presents the facts to promote a more positive image.”
While social media is an incredible tool to promote things such as the Get on BOARD campaign, it also has the potential to bring harm to the cause. We have seen first hand the level of misinformation that has been spread, only encouraging the protest further, but we can try to see this as an opportunity.
Going back to our conversation with Ana Barros, she shared a quote with us from Belen Pintado, a Spanish scientist who participated in the recorded Q&A session. This rings extremely true in this situation…
" You cannot support what you do not understand."
The people in this industry that dedicate their lives to caring for animals and providing high levels of welfare know that more needs to be done to tackle these ongoing problems. And being proactive in starting conversations around animal research and being open and honest with the public is where it all starts.
As an industry, we will do all we can to keep the momentum and do what we’re doing. Adrian Woodhouse emphasised the key things we need to do to keep moving forward…
● Keep supporting the cause and animals by providing high levels of welfare
● Ensure establishments look after staff with top level training and support
● Keep pushing boundaries and following the existing well-structured legislation
Looking back on the Get on BOARD campaign, Ana and EARA colleagues were pleased to see just how widespread the campaign was, how many people got involved and the range of initiatives brought forward by institutions. The team are rightfully proud of the campaign's success and feel that this is a positive step into the future of research.
If you’d like to see some of the highlights from the Get on BOARD campaign, simply head over to Twitter and search #BOARD21 or visit www.eara.eu. In 2022, EARA plans to run #BOARD22 during the Federation of European Laboratory Animal Science Associations (FELASA) Congress in Marseilles 13-16 June 2022.