As the United States opens its doors to allow public access to all federally funded scientific research, including increasingly controversial experiments on animals, similar transparency should be upheld on this side of the Atlantic.
When the Freedom of Information Act came into force in 2000, its purpose was to provide access to information under the public's "right to know" on the premise that transparency is fundamental to a healthy democracy. It lulled the public into a sense of openness, scrutiny and accountability. However, few people are aware that there are certain areas of public activity that are exempt from the act.
Vast amounts of taxpayer money and resources are being spent on animal experiments that are conducted in secret, with little in the way of recourse for review or accountability by the public – a third of whom now oppose the practice in the UK.
Section 24 is a secrecy clause embedded within the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. Such information is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. The clause imposes a blanket ban on the disclosure of any information. It makes it a criminal offence to reveal any detail, even to Parliament, with the risk of incurring two years' imprisonment and an unlimited fine. The original intention of Section 24 was purportedly to protect confidentiality over employee identity and to maintain commercial competitiveness. However, these areas are protected by the Freedom of Information Act itself.
Perhaps no other area would benefit from access and openness as much as animal experimentation. The current law permits the deliberate infliction of suffering on animals in laboratories that would normally be illegal in any other circumstances. It's perfectly legal to inflict brain damage on a monkey, genetically engineer a mouse to induce cancer, give electric shocks to a rat and inject or force-feed chemicals to dogs in increasingly high doses until they become sick, suffer from seizures, collapse and finally die.
Despite the coalition pledge in 2010 to "work to reduce" numbers of animals used in scientific procedures, the numbers in the UK have risen to more than 3.7m. Kittens have had their eyelids sewn shut at Cardiff University, and mice are subjected to tests for Botox in another UK laboratory.
Prohibition of access means there is no way of knowing if what's being funded is at all relevant to humans. There is no way to help improve standards to ensure tests are not unnecessarily duplicated and that alternatives are used when available. It's all so secret that we can't be confident that even the Home Office knows whether experiments on animals are being conducted in a lawful manner, or whether the most effective methods are being employed. Scientific advancement depends upon rigorous scrutiny and evaluation of all the evidence from all sides, including the public whose taxes fund much of the work. This can only be possible if we are granted access to information.
The importance of public accountability and greater openness on animal experimentation is acknowledged by many parties. The House of Lords select committee on animals in scientific procedures stated that "[w]e consider the current levels of secrecy surrounding animal experiments to be excessive" and that "[t]here should be a presumption in favour of complete openness".
Peta and many organisations want to see greater transparency. They call for the abolishment of Section 24. The public has a right to know how its money is being spent. Research should undergo proper scrutiny to propel the best science forward. The public believes this, too, as evidenced by a YouGov opinion poll that found that 80% of people agree or strongly agree that all information about animal experiments should be publicly available.
The coalition government announced public sector "transparency" as one of its key pledges in 2010. Repealing Section 24 presents it with an opportunity to show the nation that, like America, it, too, recognises the value of enhancing access to scientific information. Here is one pledge it can fulfil.
Scientific progress is possible without using or inflicting pain to other animals. Learn more > > animalequality.net/animal-experimentation