The UK’s National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) has launched an Evaluation Framework to gauge the impact of its efforts to promote alternatives to animal testing in bioscience and other fields.

According to the NC3Rs, the UK Home Office’s annual statistics on scientific procedures using live animals are “too broad-brush” to reflect actual progress in the replacement, refinement and reduction of animal experiments.

Animal rights groups regularly seize on the Home Office data as evidence of little real change in the early-phase research environment, particularly as demand for newer techniques such as genetically modified animals tends to offset gains in other areas.

“In our opinion,” comments Dr Mark Prescott, head of research management at the NC3Rs, “the Home Office’s statistics on animal procedures are too often misused for this purpose by anti-vivisection and other campaigning organisations. The statistics are not, and were never intended to be, a gauge of progress in applying the 3Rs in the UK.”

Expert review

The new Evaluation Framework, which sets out a range of metrics for measuring the impact of the Centre’s work, is the result of an expert-group review led by Professor Jamie Davies of the University of Edinburgh, which looked at the NC3Rs’ existing approach to evaluation.

As Professor Davies explains, the successful application of 3Rs initiatives across the UK means there is now far more information to capture.

Presenting a detailed breakdown of reductions in the most harmful scientific procedures, as well as gains in animal welfare, “serves the public interest much more than would a focus on a crude total of all animals used”, he says.

Moreover, clear case studies showing how fewer animal experiments can lead to better research are “a powerful incentive for even more scientists to pick up on 3Rs advances to achieve better science, for the benefit of humans and other animals”, Professor Davies adds.

Four stages

The Evaluation Framework incorporates four stages, each with an array of supporting metrics:

•    Inputs (activities and resources provided by the NC3Rs, including research funding).                          

•    Outputs/outcomes (initial results, such as scientific publications arising from NC3Rs-funded research).                             

•    Interim impacts (changes in perception, policy and practice).

•    Mature impacts (replacement, reduction and refinement).

“The NC3Rs has always taken measurement of impact very seriously,” Dr Prescott comments. “We invest public money and have a duty to show it is well spent.”

Highly dynamic

According to Prescott, the annual Home Office statistics on scientific procedures reflect “a highly dynamic scientific landscape” in which the total number of animals used fluctuates in response to factors such as strategic investments in particular research areas by the major funding bodies, or decisions by companies to scale back research and development in the UK.

The emergence of new technologies also needs to be taken into consideration, he points out. “One only has to look at the impact of techniques for genetically modifying animals – an increase of 42% in animal procedures since 2001.”

Changing regulatory requirements for animal use can also have a marked impact. The most significant of these, Prescott notes, is the EU’s REACH regulation, which “could increase enormously the number of animals used for chemical safety testing”.

These factors serve to mask significant advances in the 3Rs remit, the NC3Rs complains. For example, research funded by the Centre has reduced “by many 1,000s” the number of mice used to study B-cell dysfunction in diabetes or to develop veterinary vaccines.