Promotion of the 3Rs and non-animal research methods

More than 160 thousand animals are still used per year for the primary purpose of education and training. There is also a lack of knowledge about non-animal approaches, not only in schools and universities but also throughout researchers’ professional lives

A culture shift needs to start in schools and extend to universities, where animals are still routinely used in life sciences curricula. Students get used to practising a myriad of procedures on animals, where alternative teaching methods are available, reinforcing a culture that accepts the use of animals as mere tools. With these educational practices, old habits and ways of conducting research are being reinforced in a new generation of researchers and healthcare professionals.

There are three major challenges to the adoption of animal-free educational models: 

  • Lack of knowledge of, or confidence in, existing animal-free teaching and training methods

  • Slow adaptation and development of technology to new training needs (e.g. new therapy)

  • Different mindsets in education and training of (veterinary) healthcare professionals and life scientists

Education professionals often resist alternatives, stating diminished effectiveness and increased costs or time investments as reasons. However, studies have shown that well-designed teaching methods not reliant on the harmful use of animals can be beneficial not only to animals but also to students. Additionally, in countries where the use of animals in education is reduced to close to zero, there is no evidence that the students who are being trained are less capable or qualified.

In the same way that students should be versed in animal-free science as part of their curriculum, fully-fledged scientists should also have the knowledge, resources and continuous training they need to be able to source, use and further develop non-animal methods.

At the moment, the adoption of non-animal methods is slow. The reasons identified for such delays include lack of knowledge and training. This could be addressed by national and international knowledge-sharing platforms, regular and accessible training courses, and continuous update of life sciences curricula to introduce existing non-animal approaches and present the pros and cons of different methods.

WHAT DOES THE PUBLIC THINK?

Overall, the majority of the public is opposed to animal experimentation which is conducted for reasons which have no connection with life-threatening diseases, suggesting their opposition to animals used for purposes such as education and training.

Students and faculty alike have been speaking up against enforcing the use of animals in education. The universities and countries that are taking steps to allow individuals to object are more in line with the broader public opinion than those who continue to force their students to practice on animals.

A British survey in 2018 found low public awareness of government work on the 3Rs: the replacement, reduction and refinement of the use of animals in research, education and testing. Fewer than one in ten respondents knew more than a little about the government work. Similarly, nine out of ten had not heard of the UK’s National Centre for the 3Rs. The survey also found that only 15% of respondents “are not bothered” if animals are used in scientific research.

POLICY - CURRENT STATE OF PLAY

EU Directive 2010/63/EU on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes is built on the principle of the 3Rs, but some Member States are still struggling to adopt and promote humane methods in the education and training programmes of future researchers and healthcare providers.

Under article 47 of the Directive, the European Commission and Member States are responsible for promoting alternatives to the use of animals in research, education, and testing. In these last years, the EURL ECVAM commissioned a training course on The Three Rs and Animal Use in Science, available to educators at the European Schoolnet Academy. In 2019 it also produced a database of the available 3Rs courses in Member States. In 2020 the first reviews of non-animal methods used in research of specific disease areas should be released.

Similarly, some Member States have also been promoting 3R alternative methods by, for example: 

  • Creating national dedicated 3R centres

  • Creating national websites with centralised information on alternatives in a common language

  • Promoting platforms, working groups, training courses and workshops on the 3Rs

  • Giving research prizes

  • Creating databases or search engines dedicated to alternative methods

Previous work and databases on alternative approaches did not have much impact. To avoid this, it is important that this recent work continues to be promoted by the Commission, Member States, and every stakeholder, guaranteeing continuous engagement from all parties.