Tribunal forces university to reveal details of primate research

Posted on November 19, 2011

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Rhesus macaques are often used for research

A landmark ruling was made this week which has raised more than a few eyebrows among scientific researchers.

Newcastle University lost its 3-year battle against the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) over revealing details of Home Office licences to conduct experiments on primates through Freedom of Information requests (FOIs).

The Freedom of Information Act 2000, has helped and continues to help many journalists gain access to important records on the basis of public interest. In the right hands it is a powerful tool. The university had responded saying complying to such requests could endanger the safety of scientists or harm its commercial interests.

However the Information Tribunal ruled that a recent decline in animal rights violence meant researchers were unlikely to become targets for extremists. It said: “Refusal to communicate with the public carries its own risks… creating the impression there is something to hide.”

It said assertions that disclosing details of the licences might prejudice commercial interests were “borderline”.

Macaques are commonly used for scientific research both here and in the USA

Following the decision, Michelle Thew, chief executive of BUAV, said she was delighted: “These are controversial and invasive experiments carried out on monkeys at a public institution. The public has a right to know what is happening to these poor animals and why.”

A spokesperson for Newcastle University said: “The university carries out a small amount of scientific work on primates where no alternative for the research exists and this is fully regulated by the Home Office.”

The BUAV brought the case to light after it claimed a lead researcher at the university had been refused permission by the authorities in Germany to carry out invasive brain techniques on macaques. The charity also alleged that no human benefit had emerged from the trials.

Earlier this year an independent report by a panel of experts (The Bateson Report) ruled that one in ten experiments on monkeys had no scientific benefit whatsoever. It said in a minority of experiments, the justification for using monkeys was “not compelling”.

But this week’s controversial decision has once again split opinion, with some critics saying this ruling could have implications for Britain’s university sector. Sir Paul Nurse, the President of the Royal Society, for the FOI Act is calling for the decision to be reviewed.

Sir Paul told one national newspaper that the legislation was being used as an aggressive “tool of intimidation” against researchers engaged in high profile studies on climate change, tobacco or using laboratory animals.

Newcastle University has already spent nearly a quarter of a million pounds fighting the applications from BUAV. It is now expected to go to the Court of Appeal, where it will argue the licences are exempt under the Animal Scientific Procedures Act.

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Posted in: Captivity