Scientists have pledged to be more open about how they use animals in research and teaching, in a just-announced agreement that's the first of its kind outside Europe.
The new Openness Agreement on Animal Research and Teaching in New Zealand, formally announced at a Queenstown conference this afternoon, aimed to ensure the public were well-informed about the often contentious work.
That included the role animal research played in scientific discovery, how it was regulated, what researchers did to promote animal welfare, and what ethical considerations were involved.
The pledge committed its signatories – which include all of New Zealand's major universities – to improve communication with tangata whenua, and to also report back on progress annually.
A leading anti-vivisection group has called the move an "excellent first step" – but wanted to see the signatories honour their promise for greater transparency.
Animals have long been part of research, testing and teaching in New Zealand.
In 2019 alone, more than 315,000 – including mice, rats, fish, guinea pigs, sheep and cattle – were manipulated for scientific purposes.
Although the research had little to no impact on nearly three-quarters of those animals, a further 136,679 animals were bred but killed without being used – something researchers tried to mitigate through targeted and on-demand breeding.
Any research activities involving animals had to comply with the Animal Welfare Act, and those that required manipulation couldn't be carried out without approval by an animal ethics committee.
"Public confidence in animal research depends on the scientific community taking part in an ongoing conversation about why, and how animals are used," said Otago University's Professor Pat Cragg, who chairs the Australian and New Zealand Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Teaching (ANZCCART).
"Through signing this openness agreement, the signatory organisations have committed to having this conversation with the public."
Among those 21 institutes that had signed up were AgResearch, Niwa, Auckland Zoo, the Malaghan Institute, the Department of Conservation, Royal Society Te Apārangi, AUT and Auckland, Massey, Victoria, Waikato, Canterbury and Otago universities – the latter of which just opened a $50m new facility for animal research.
Prominent University of Auckland microbiologist Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles, whose own research sometimes used animals, said she hoped the agreement would encourage researchers and organisations to be more open about the issue.
"In doing so, the public will be better informed not just about the incredible research being done in New Zealand for the benefit of both humans and animals, but also about the dedication and care of the many researchers and technical staff involved."
Associate Professor Malcolm Tingle, head of the University of Auckland's Department of Pharmacology and Clinical Pharmacology, said there'd been a reluctance for organisations to be open with the public about animal use.
"This in part has been driven by a fear of anti-vivisection activities, adverse publicity and in some cases the potential for distress and/or harm to employees and students using animals from such activities," Tingle said.
"Whilst some details are made public, such as animal use statistics, these are often presented in an anodyne way as possible.
"As such, the use of animals for RTT in New Zealand has relied on a high trust model operating largely behind closed doors."
Tingle felt the agreement should be seen as "a very welcome move" to provide some clarity on what was actually done with animals.
Dr Mike King, an animal ethicist and senior lecturer at Otago's Bioethics, said the agreement was an "immensely valuable achievement".
King said animal research and teaching was an "ethically complex" issue, and informed, reasonable disagreement about it is an opportunity for ethical progress to be made.
"This research is always undertaken with the aim of benefitting humans, animals and the environment," he said.
"Animals are central to this issue and should be central beneficiaries of this progress."
Tara Jackson of the New Zealand Anti-Vivisection Society, which attended the ANZCCART conference for the first time this year, welcomed the step but still remained concerned there wouldn't be enough transparency.
"There is a big difference between a PR exercise to get the public on board, and genuinely allowing the public full access to know what is going on," she said.
"Morally, and often legally, the public has every right to be able to scrutinise what is happening to animals."