British biomedical scientists who carry out research using animals welcomed a 'sea change' in the attitude of policy-makers and the public to their work last week. Eighteen months ago more than 100 researchers sent an open letter  to Science Minister Lord Sainsbury warning that increasing bureaucracy in the granting of project licences was hampering their ability to do research in the UK. High-profile activity by animal rights activists, particularly against beleaguered contract research organisation Huntingdon Life Sciences, has forced Government action. "Backbone has been put into Ministers where there was little backbone before," said veteran Labour MP Tam Dalyell.
Dalyell was speaking at the launch of three new publications from the Research Defence Society  (RDS), the organisation set up nearly a century ago to explain the need for research involving animals to a sceptical public. He gave much of the credit for the altered climate to patient advocacy groups.
Professor Nancy Rothwell, a neuroscientist who is featured in the RDS's new literature, believes that scientists like her have an important role to play in continuing to influence the shift in public attitudes. "We need my colleagues to go out and talk to people," she says, in order to challenge the "frightening amount of misinformation" in the community. Matt Gregory, a veterinary surgeon at a large company, whose role is to be the advocate for laboratory animals' welfare, described the satisfaction he gets from talking to school groups and dispelling the myths. Impressively he managed to make two sixth form boys faint during a recent school visit, by describing the treatment for polio in the days before therapies developed using animal research--"they had never heard of anything so horrible" as having to spend months in an iron lung. And as well as talking to school groups and the public, Dalyell would like to see scientists "going to their local MP and pressing the case."
Rothwell was one of the signatories of the letter to Lord Sainsbury. According to her there is still a long way to go in making life easier for Britain's biomedical researchers. "Little bits of things" have been sorted out in the past year and a half, she says. These include the implementation of a new IT system at the Home Office, which grants licences, and the employment of more Home Office inspectors, both moves which ought to speed up the licence review process. However, while Rothwell says that there has certainly been progress, in vivo researchers still face two big problems. "The whole complexity of the project licence application process" means these are more difficult and time-consuming to write than a full-scale Medical Research Council grant, she says. And ethical review, carried out at the local level and introduced a few years ago as a second layer of checks on research involving animals, "is enormously varied across the country." She would like to see recommendations of best practice that could be adopted by ethical review panels at all universities.
Despite recent improvements, animal researchers still face threats to their personal safety and obstacles to their research that are unknown to their colleagues in other fields. In hindsight, if they were starting out today, would these researchers have chosen to work on projects requiring the use of animals, or would they look for problems that could be solved in other ways? Transplant surgeon Paul Lear, whose work with rats is aimed at improving the survival rate of intestinal transplants, says he would undoubtedly follow the same path. He began his research more than 20 years ago, and after returning to the bench recently after a 4-year break he found that the hoops that he is made to jump through in order to conduct his research are certainly different. But "the important thing," he says, "is that there are questions that have to be answered," and using animals is the only way to answer them. Rothwell on the other hand is not so sure she would choose research with animals again. "You like to think you would," she says, "but I'm not convinced," suggesting that today she might instead pursue her first love, mathematics.
So are there compensations for young researchers with the determination to overcome the problems in the search for new treatments? Like many research leaders Rothwell finds it increasingly difficult to find good PhD students and postdocs. She puts this down to a variety of factors, including the poor pay and prospects that affect all branches of science. She also points out that there has been a reduction in the amount of physiology taught at the undergraduate level in recent years, reducing the pool of prospective researchers in her field. But, poor prospects should not be a concern for anyone embarking on research using animals; such experience is much in demand. Rothwell says she is phoned "every other month" by industrial scientists seeking to employ PhDs from her group.