A large part of the the public supports vital animal research conducted in the most humane way possible. Yet animal rights activists, seeking to end all animal research, regardless of its societal value, continue to propagate the perception that animal research is cruel, unnecessary, hidden, and unsupported by the public or government. The truth is that animal research is socially strong demand, funded and approved by the governmentand it is regulated by animal research legislation.
However, the public may not be getting enough information about how animal research is conducted and why it is important. Additionally, scientists may not be confident that engagement improves public perception and may feel that they do not have the time or training to engage effectively with the public on animal research.
Now, thanks to a new study, there’s more evidence that science engagement improves public perception of animal research.
The results of a study conducted by Juan Carlos Mendez and his colleagues have just been published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. This was a science-based public engagement study conducted by a primate neuroscience and public engagement team from the University of Oxford.
Mendez and colleagues provide direct evidence that animal research awareness can lead to a positive change in public perception of animal research after scientist-initiated engagement activities. For example, one of the questions in the study measures the change in perception of animal research after the scientist-led public engagement event. The results show that 53% said “Yes, positively”, with only 3% saying “Yes, negatively” (44% had “Unchanged” opinions).
The researchers organized two public engagement events as part of public science festivals that took place in the UK and also online. These events were part of the Oxford Science and Ideas Festival in 2020 and the British Neuroscience “Bring Your Own Brain” events in 2021, as part of the Festival of Neuroscience in the UK. During these events, neuroscientists engaged with the public by showing the importance of working in primates to elucidate an important brain system that is compromised in patients with dementia and memory impairment.
First, they explained the regulatory and ethical approvals that must be obtained for primate work to be allowed to begin and the regulatory oversight of the work once it has begun. The group also showed how their work was carried out in the most humane way possible, showing videos of team members working with the monkeys. They then explained the results of the research. The 40-minute presentation was recorded and made freely available online at Youtube (also see here). The online video was viewed several thousand times and nearly 100 people took part in the engagement activities and pre- and post-surveys.
The researchers asked participants a few questions before and after the engagement activities, including: 1) How well-informed do you feel about animal research in the UK? and, 2) What do you think of animal research? They compared responses before and after the activity.
On the first question about how well informed participants are about animal research, they found that the majority of participants felt “not well informed” or “not at all well informed”. However, after the engagement activities, the majority (59%) felt ‘fairly well informed’, with 29% feeling ‘very well informed’. This was a substantial shift in participants’ perception of being informed about animal research and how and why it is conducted.
Source: Mendez et al. 2022. “Figure. 1 | Effects of Science Engagement on Animal Research Prospects. Total Percentage of Online Survey Results Completed Before (Early Survey) and Immediately After (Late Survey) Our Online Science Engagement Event” In behind the scenes of a non-human primate research lab”, attended by people over 13 from the 2020 IF Oxford Science and Ideas Festival and the British Neuroscience Association “Bring Your Own Brain” 2021 Festival of Neuroscience.
We at Speaking of research commend the scientists who have taken these steps to engage and better inform the public about the importance of animal research and how it is conducted and regulated. Their pre- and post-survey data underscores that, yes, public perception can improve when scientists engage with the public about their animal research.
Their findings add to a growing body of evidence from outreach, education and investigative efforts that have taken place over the past decades and are continuing. For example, in a June 2021 guest post on Speaking of Research, leaders of the Biomedical Research Foundation compared the results of their public survey on perceptions of animal research with those of a Gallup poll. They asked similarly structured questions, but asked in a more thoughtful way. They found that while the majority of respondents in both polls thought animal research was morally acceptable, asking the question more thoughtfully, as FBR did, seemed to lead to a more thoughtful answer. Namely, the big middle, who thought animal research was morally wrong in the Gallup poll, was instead a big middle in the FBR poll of individuals who were undecided and seemed to need more information on whether animal research was morally unacceptable or acceptable.
For many people, their impression of animal research may evolve into greater opposition to it, if for example the public only gets information from the side that has no problem spreading scientific misinformation for the purpose of to end all animal research, regardless of its societal benefits. . Or, the impression of the importance of animal research may change to be more favorable, as data from the Mendez study suggests, if the information about how and why animal research is conducted comes directly from the scientists themselves. .
We encourage all scientists to actively participate in public engagement activities to better inform the public. Participate in annual science festivals or those organized in person or online by your institution. Organizations such as Understanding animal research and the Foundation for Biomedical Research can provide the advice and training needed to make these events a success and a pleasure for all involved, the public and the scientists.
In addition to engaging with the public, it is important to obtain and share your data to add to the growing database. As the Mendez study shows, this can be achieved by conducting pre- and post-event surveys of the public at events. Investigations do not need to be extensive. They may include only a few questions, such as those the Mendez Study or the FBR survey used.
Animal research remains important, as does taking the time to engage with the public about it.