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Imperial College under renewed pressure over animal research

Government inspections of animal research in the UK should be reviewed, an independent advisory group said today, in a report which also adds to pressure on Imperial College London over its work in this area.

The Animals in Science Committee, a group including respected scientists, lay persons, animal welfare experts and others which advises the government on animal research, says the minister in charge of the area “should consider whether he can continue to have confidence” in John Neilson, the senior figure at the university who is the licence holder for such work.

The Committee’s report also reveals that inspectors from the UK Home Office expressed concerns about animal research at Imperial before allegations of poor practice were made by London-based animal rights group the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection in 2013 after an undercover investigation.

In a statement today, the Home Office minister Norman Baker said, “I regard this as a very serious matter and will consider the report carefully. The Government will publish its response as soon as possible.”

Imperial has responded strongly to the report. It says that Neilson, “who has served in this role since May 2012, has strengthened the College’s governance and operational management of animal research”. In a statement, the university added, “Imperial fully supports his leadership and handling of responsibilities as [the licence holder].”

Imperial has already been subjected to an independent review it commissioned in the wake of the allegations. The university has accepted the conclusions of that review — including that animal-research facilities were understaffed and systems related to management, training and ethical review should be improved – and produced an action plan to work on this.

Imperial says it was “surprised” that today’s report did not refer to this action plan, and that it is “disappointed” that its offer to meet the authors of the report was not taken up.

“The College has made substantial progress in implementing changes set out in the Plan,” it says. “These build on the good standards of animal husbandry identified in the Brown Review and are enabling the College to build a new culture around animal research by establishing and promoting best practice, and taking ethical, welfare and 3Rs issues into account at every level.”

Today’s report comes from a working group set up by the ASC in the wake of the original allegations, and draws on the independent review. However it also contains details of another investigation by the Home Office itself, which has not been made public.

According to the ASC, the Home Office inspection concluded that there were cases where Imperial had not complied with legislation on animal research but that there were “few instances of animal suffering”. The ASC says there was “nonetheless a systematic pattern of infringements [and] at least two involved tangible welfare costs”.

The ASC report also reveals that Home Office inspectors visited Imperial 15 times in 2012 and its report expresses concern that these inspections did not appear to detect “underlying failures of leadership, management and culture” identified by the independent review. However the ASC also says that its review of the inspectors work found “evidence that a pattern of concerns was identified by the HOI as early as 2012”. A meeting to discuss these concerns would have taken place, had it not been pre-empted by the undercover investigation by the BUAV.

The report makes a number of recommendations to the Home Office minister, including that inspectors be given “a clear mandate” to identify the failings found at Imperial. Procedures around inspections should also be reviewed to ensure that “low level” concerns are picked up and dealt with. Risk assessment at the inspectorate should also be reviewed, says the ASC, to make sure inadequate animal research establishments are rapidly identified.

The ASC also says more financial support should be given to those in biomedical work, so they can go beyond basic welfare and be more involved in the research.

Katy Taylor, the senior scientist at the BUAV, says the recommendations leave the Home Office “with work to do” regarding their oversight of animal research. The fact that concerns at Imperial were already being expressed “leaves us with quite low confidence” in the UK inspection regime, she says.

This blog post was updated 7/7/2014 to reflect that membership of the Animals in Science Committee is not restricted to researchers.

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