The University of British Columbia is reviewing its policy on releasing information about animal research, as part of an ongoing legal battle with the advocacy group STOP UBC Animal Research.
STOP UBC Animal Research wants UBC to release details about its animal research. The group filed an appeal to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner after repeated requests for information were denied by UBC. The appeal will be heard in November.
Grants provided by government funding agencies pay for as much as 80 per cent of the animal studies at UBC. The advocacy group argues the public does not have enough details on the work at UBC to decide whether animal research is justified.
“You can’t have a fair evaluation of whether this is critical research that helps human health, and whether it’s necessary, if you don’t get the facts out there for us to objectively look at,” said STOP UBC Animal Research Director Brian Vincent.
UBC President Stephen Toope acknowledged the university “has not communicated well enough” about animal research during a Town Hall meeting in September, where the advocacy group staged a silent protest.
“For some people, the answer is, just don’t do the research on animals. I have been convinced that there are some kinds of experiments that are really important for human health,” said Toope.
“There are researchers that are passionate about trying to do something about that, and they tell me they can’t model what they want to do without access to animals.”
Over 3.3 million animals were used for research in Canada in 2009, compared to nearly 2.6 million animals in 1975. STOP UBC Animal Research has requested the numbers of animals used in research at UBC by species, as well as research methods for specific studies that involve pigs, primates and cats. They also asked for details of major donors to UBC research.
[pullquote]It’s balancing the desires for transparency against concerns against releasing sensitive research data or compromising third party privacy.[/pullquote]UBC Access and Privacy Manager Paul Hancock has been dealing with STOP’s requests. He said UBC’s response is based on accommodating the objectives of transparency and of protection of privacy as laid out in British Columbia’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA).
“[UBC] wants to be more transparent on animal research, but it’s balancing the desires for transparency against concerns against releasing sensitive research data or compromising third party privacy,” he said.
“I want people to recognize that UBC is doing all it can to meet those dual objectives. This particular request has been challenging to balance those objectives but we’re still doing our best,” said Hancock.
Hancock says that UBC’s own review is ongoing and hopes it will be able to release some of the information requested in the coming weeks, such as the numbers and species of animals used and the sources of government funding.
Research at UBC
The majority of animals used at UBC are mice, rats and fish. STOP wants an end to all animal research at UBC, but focuses on the use of larger animals, like macaque monkeys for the study of Parkinson’s disease. The monkeys do not get Parkinson’s in the wild, so the disease has to be introduced before any research can begin.
“Some things rub human society the wrong way for good reason. Animal research is one of those things that the public has a right to know if their tax dollars are going towards something that is morally repugnant, regardless of what the outcome is,” said STOP’s Vincent.
UBC, in common with other Canadian universities, does not release details of ongoing studies. The competitive nature of research is protected by the freedom of information legislature across the country.
“Research is one of the core functions of UBC, and research has great value to the institution as well as to the individual researchers. For that reason, research information is not subject to disclosure under the FIPPA,” said Hancock.
The Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC) sets and maintains standards for the use of animals in science, and research institutions like UBC must be accredited by the CCAC in order to receive funding from the federal government.
Animal research programs at UBC are audited every three years for compliance with humane animal care codes. While these audits can lead to the suspension of funding, details of inspections are not released to the public.
Green College UBC will be hosting a series of public panels over the coming year about animals in research, bringing together experts in the sciences, humanities and social sciences.