Control of Animal Use in Science
Under Australian State and Territory law we have a duty to provide for animals' physical, health and behavioural needs.
These needs and how they can be met are outlined in The Australian Code for the Care and Use of Animals Used for Scientific Purposes.
Australians want the benefits of animal-based science and through the relevant legislation, Australians have given permission for our "duty of care" towards animals to be partly suspended during research, teaching and testing, but only when very stringent conditions are met.
A special way of thinking guides the humane and responsible use of animals in science in Australia. All scientists as individuals, and through their institutions (Company, Institute or University), are expected to accept ethical responsibility for their behaviour towards animals. The ways they are required to meet their ethical responsibilities are explained in a national Code of Practice. To make sure that this Code is followed, each institution must also have an Animal Ethics Committee (AEC). So the legally binding framework used in Australia is known as the Australian Code of Practice for the Care and Use of Animals for Scientific Purposes.
For people in Australia to trust this system and continue to give permission for it to be used, animal-based scientists need to do two important things.
- First, they must follow the letter of the law - they must follow the rules exactly as they are written.
- Second, and this is more important, they must also operate according to the spirit of the law. This means that, while operating within the law as it is written:
- they should behave honestly and responsibly;
- the work they do must be worthwhile, i.e., it must be of value in helping animals or people in some way;
- they must think about values, which means they must think about issues like what the best things to study are, what the best methods of study are, what ways of using animals are acceptable and what ways are not acceptable, and how we can be sure that the new knowledge obtained from animal work will be used to do good things and not bad;
- they must also make sure that the highest standards of animal care are used at all times.
The legally binding conditions which must be followed when animals are used in science in Australia are laid out in the relevant State or Territory legislation.
How is the animal ethics committee system managed and monitored in Australia?
Unlike New Zealand, which has one set of national legislation and a National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee, Australia has no national animal welfare legislation, but eight sets of State and Territory legislation.
The use of animals for research, teaching and testing is controlled by the Animal Welfare Office in each State and Territory. New South Wales is the only state to enact legislation specifically concerning animal use in science - the Animal Research Act 1985. This is very comprehensive and includes the requirement for an inspectorate to be established to oversee animal use for research, teaching and testing in NSW. This is known as the Animal Research Review Panel. It monitors animal ethics committees to ensure they are functioning properly and inspects animal houses too make sure animals are being cared for properly. The Panel publishes an annual report, which summarises its activities as well as tabulating all uses of animals in NSW each year under the Animal Research Act.
Other States, particularly Victoria, do carry out regular inspection and monitoring, but its extent varies between States and Territories.
Animal ethics committees
Each institution must have an Animal Ethics Committee, the membership and responsibilities of which are prescribed in the Codes of Practice and usually also in State and Territory legislation.
In addition to a senior staff member of the institution, at least one scientist and animal care staff, there are three very important members of each Animal Ethics Committee. These are independent members who are watchdogs on behalf of animals and the public and include a member of a recognised animal welfare organisation, a layperson, and a veterinarian.
Among other things, the Animal Ethics Committee has the following responsibilities.
- It must consider and, only if it is satisfied, approve all research, teaching and testing procedures before they begin.
- It must assess any harm that may be done to the animals and how the scientists will keep that harm as low as possible (see minimising the harm done to animals used in science)
- It must review the expected benefits of the work and how those benefits will be made as great as possible (see benefits of animal-based science).
- It must decide on whether any harm will be outweighed by the benefits to a large enough extent to make it acceptable to do the work (see balancing harm and benefit).
- It must make sure that the training and experience of all people involved with the animals are of a high enough standard and cover the full range of skills required for the work.
- It must be sure that the standards of animal care will be acceptable.
It must also ensure that the people doing the work know who is responsible for the day-to-day care of the animals and that emergency attention to the animals is speedily available at all times.
Applications to do animal-based procedures
Every person wishing to conduct a research, teaching or testing procedure must first apply to, and receive approval for the proposed work from, their institution's Animal Ethics Committee. To do this they must make a formal written application to the Committee in which they provide all the information noted above (see Animal Ethics Committees above).
Heavy penalties for unacceptable behaviour towards animals
Any individual prosecuted successfully and penalised by the Courts for a serious offence would presumably also be dismissed or banned by the institution from conducting animal-based procedures. In very serious cases an institution's Code of Ethical Conduct can be suspended or revoked, which would stop all of its animal-based science activities, not just those that led to the suspension or revocation.
Surveillance: Checking that things are done properly
Watching to make sure that things are done properly when animals are used in research, teaching and testing is done in several ways.
There are the independent members of each Animal Ethics Committee who are the watchdogs for the public to make sure that each ethics committee does its job properly. There is a member of a recognised animal welfare organisation, a layperson, and a veterinarian. Their role is so important that they are given advice on how to do it well. This advice comes from ANZCCART (the Australian and New Zealand Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Teaching), the National Health and Medical Research Council and from some of the organisations that suggested the three independent members. These organisations include the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals [RSPCA] and the Australian Veterinary Association.
Colleagues of the animal-based scientists who actually conduct the work also have a role as watchdogs and are encouraged to report and discuss any matters of concern which may arise.