Posted on behalf of Alison Abbott.
A landmark court ruling this week has ended uncertainties in Germany about who may decide the permissible level of animal suffering in experiments. On 11 December, Bremen’s administrative court said that local health authorities had been wrong in 2008 to block a licence for neuroscience studies on macaque monkeys.
The authorities argued at the time that experiments carried out by Andreas Kreiter at the University of Bremen were not ethically justified because the animals suffered too much. But the court decided that the animals’ discomfort was “at most moderate”. It further ruled that it did not fall within the remit of local authorities to make decisions relating to level of animal suffering — formal expert committees, as outlined in Europe-wide laws, have this responsibility.
Kreiter studies the neuronal mechanisms involved in paying attention. Campaigns against his work by animal-rights advocates — which have included death threats against himself and his family — began soon after he joined the university in 1996. The campaigns gained increasing political support, and in 2007 Bremen’s Social Democrat–Green coalition decided not to renew his licence, which had been due to expire the following year.
The government carried out its threat, ignoring an expert committee of scientists and welfare organizations that had judged the work ethically justifiable. The university successfully challenged the case in court, which ruled in October 2009. The health authorities immediately appealed to the higher court, which gave its verdict this week — and disallowed further appeal. The authorities still have the right to ask a federal court to order the Bremen court to reconsider, but legal experts doubt such a request would be successful, given the thoroughness if the Bremen court’s 3,000-page report.
Kreiter has been allowed to continue his research throughout the legal challenges. “Fortunately — otherwise it would have been the end for my research,” he says.