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Victory in FOI appeal against Newcastle University over controversial monkey tests

10th November 2010

Newcastle University’s arguments ruled ‘an affront to common sense’ in FOI case involving controversial research on primates

The Information Tribunal today described legal arguments run by Newcastle University as ‘an affront to common sense’. The comment was made following an appeal by the BUAV under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) into taxpayer funded experiments on nonhuman primates at Newcastle University.
The tribunal, led by Judge Bartlett QC, rejected the University’s claims that it does not hold any information about any of the very large number of animal experiments carried out at the University. It admitted that there are around 70 government licences in operation at any one time (a single licence can involve hundreds of animals) but claimed that only the researchers, its employees, hold information about the research. If true, that would defeat an FOIA request.

The Tribunal gave a trenchant response to the argument:

‘[The BUAV] submitted that the result for which the University contended was an affront to common-sense. [It] submitted it would be remarkable if the University did not hold important information about extensive animal research carried out on its premises by its employees, for which it received the funds, for which it provided the facilities, the training, the ancillary staff, the drugs, the routine equipment and the necessary insurances, in respect of which the University owed duties of care to safeguard employees and the local community from biosecurity risks, in respect of which the University claimed intellectual property rights and for which its Registrar acted as the certificate holder [person in overall charge of animal experiments] representing the governing body and protecting the interests of the University. We agree …’.

In June 2008 the BUAV requested information from the University about recent highly invasive brain experiments on macaques (nonhuman primates), described in three articles published by the researchers. The experiments involved (amongst other things) opening up the animals’ skulls and implanting electrodes into their brains to record activity while they were forced repeatedly to undergo various tasks. Monkeys were forcibly restrained by the head and body, which would cause them a high level of distress.

The BUAV was particularly interested in the research because one of the lead researchers has been refused permission by authorities in Germany for apparently similar experiments on primates. The authorities in Berlin rejected his application as unethical, because the suffering – including repeated body and head restraint and a very severe regime of water deprivation to motivate the monkeys to perform tasks – was too great, particularly given the lack of practical benefit from the experiments. Similarly, the scientific papers published about the Newcastle primate experiments do not identify any benefit for human health from the research.

The UK Government often claims that its system of regulation of animal experiments is the strictest in the world – a claim roundly rejected by the BUAV. This research represents an opportunity to test the claim – why are experiments on primates allowed in this country when apparently similar ones are prohibited elsewhere? This is why the BUAV has requested the information.

Aside from the ethical issues and lack of benefits to human health, these experiments are also contentious because primates can be replaced by human volunteer studies using non-invasive imaging machines such as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines. It is supposedly a fundamental principle of UK legislation that animals should not be used where non-animal methods can give the desired information.

The University initially confirmed that it held the two licences in question, issued by the Home Office. It refused the BUAV request on the basis of various exemptions in FOIA. Very late in the proceedings, it claimed that it did not actually hold the licences – indeed, that it was prohibited from doing so

As well as rejecting this argument, the Tribunal also rejected the University’s reliance on a particular FOIA exemption. Two further exemptions will now be considered.

Michelle Thew, BUAV Chief Executive, said:

“This is a victory for common sense. How many thousands of pounds of students’ and taxpayers’ money has the university wasted in maintaining these ridiculous arguments in a desperate attempt to wash its hands of the huge amount of animal research which takes place there? Sadly, Newcastle University’s extraordinary behaviour is typical of the lengths to which the animal research community, backed up by the Home Office, will go to keep information about animal experiments secret. This begs the question: just what have they got to hide? It is high time for an intelligent debate about the ethics and science of animal experiments. Without full transparency on what is being done to animals and why, such a debate is not possible.”

ENDS

For further information, contact Fleur Dawes at fleur.dawes@buav.org +44 (0) 207 619 6978 or out-of hours +44(0) 7850 510 955 sarah.kite@buav.org

www.buav.org

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