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Survey on animal use and alternatives in higher education in Europe

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Survey on animal use and alternatives in higher education in Europe

From The Lord Dowding Fund for Humane Research
February 2012

For almost thirty years, the LDF has supported and promoted the replacement of the use of animals in life science education. We believe that in order to change the culture of animal use in industry, science graduates need to learn using advanced techniques, rather than animals.

As part of this ongoing work, we commissioned a survey of the use of animals in higher education in Europe, which was carried out by Dr Akiko Hemmi and Professor David Dewhurst of the University of Edinburgh.

Aims and objectives:

Countries were selected for the survey in order to give a good mix of geography, developing vs. developed countries and languages. Those chosen were the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Poland, Holland, Slovenia, Czech Republic and the Republic of Macedonia.

A search was then conducted to identify courses that contained components of physiology or pharmacology, especially via practical laboratory classes. The number of institutions contacted in each country ranged from 3 to 52, with a total of 294 contacted. Each was invited to complete the questionnaire, which had been translated into their language in order to maximise the response rate and ensure clarity. Follow-up emails and telephone calls were made.

The main findings

The average number of animals used per institution was calculated, although the low number of responses from the Eastern European countries made valid comparisons difficult. However, Romania was found to have the highest average of 110.8 animals, followed by France with 68.6 and Spain with 48.2.

Of the western European universities the UK had the third highest average levels after France and Spain. Underlying these figures is the fact that Spain uses the highest number of mammals, and the UK the highest number of amphibians.

The UK showed a staggeringly high use of guinea pigs relative to other countries, with an estimate of over 400. The next highest figure for guinea pigs was France, with 11. According to Professor Dewhurst “this fits with the guinea pig ileum preparation being the most frequently used in teaching undergraduate pharmacology” in the UK.

The top three reasons why institutions did not use computer-based resources were identified as:

  1.  Difficulty in finding resources.
  2. Lack of money.
  3.  Available resources did not meet specific learning objectives.

In Germany and Spain, the “lack of capacity to create resources in-house” was reported as an issue and in Italy the barrier was cited as “the lack of support from their institutions and/or colleagues”. Three of the four Eastern European countries found that the cost of the programmes was a barrier to use.

Positively, a number of factors that would persuade academic staff to introduce alternatives were identified. These included “published evidence of effectiveness” and “recommendation from a colleague”.

Interestingly, in the Western European institutions the students’ objections to animal use was “a serious driver”, whereas in the Eastern European countries this was a lower priority than saving money. Thus in some countries, moral objections may not be sufficient to reduce animal use if it is perceived that the alternatives are more expensive.

It was noticeable that some institutions chose to remain anonymous, making it difficult to obtain accurate data and calculate response rates. This may have been because the questionnaire was perceived as being the “thin end of the wedge” to abolishing animal use in education. However, the authors believe that “the study has made a significant first step in this area and possibly represents the most comprehensive survey carried out to date”.

As expected, mice and rats were the most common mammalian species used for teaching, although Macedonia and Spain were the only countries to report the use of dogs. Of the non-mammalian species, amphibians were most used; possibly to teach nerve and muscle physiology.

Language was reported by some respondents to be a barrier. This shows the importance of making foreign language versions of these programmes available, especially if they are free or low cost and there is published evidence of their effectiveness.

It is hoped that eventually no animals will be used in teaching. Alternatives are certainly available and were reported as being used to replace animals at high levels in Spain and at low levels in France and Italy. The authors concluded that the “reported use of alternatives in UK universities (35%) is disappointing”.

This study shows that despite successes there remains much to do to ensure that alternatives to animals in education are actually implemented. Step one is developing the alternatives but it is vital to maintain the pressure to ensure their use. This study has provided vital information for our drive to end the use of animals in education.