Communicating 3Rs research – moving beyond the principles

Today the NC3Rs announces its support for the Research Council’s Concordat on Engaging the Public with Research, which aims to create a greater focus on public engagement with research and help embed this across all disciplines in the higher education and research sectors. Dan Richards, Communications Manager at the NC3Rs, explains why the time is ripe for public engagement with the 3Rs. 

It’s no secret amongst the UK’s community of science communicators that animal research is one of the most challenging topics to talk to the public about.

The Ipsos MORI Public Attitudes to Science Survey in 2011 puts it as one of the most contentious topics in science, along with nuclear power and GM food. These are areas where science is progressing at an incredibly fast pace to supply the biggest demands of our society – food, energy and health. Yet nuclear power and GM foods are fairly recent scientific innovations compared with animal research, which can trace its origins back to the first experiments on animals in the third Century BC.

Science is now catching up on animal research with the advent of new technologies which make tangible progress in the 3Rs a realistic possibility. Animal research is no longer just challenged on moral and ethical grounds, but by the objectivity of the 3Rs principles – to replace, reduce and refine animal use. These principles very basically boil down to critically assessing the need for animals in an experiment and applying more science to each research question at hand to reduce animal use, suffering and generate better scientific results.

Applying the 3Rs across the research community to replace all animal use is an ambitious and long-term goal requiring scientific and technological developments. Yet originally conceived in the 1960s, the 3Rs are emerging from their infancy as a philosophy of practice and gaining more prominence as an established research methodology.

Set-up in 2004, the NC3Rs now funds a diverse portfolio of inspiring science through a thriving cross-discipline community of researchers up and down the UK. Along with other international efforts, there exists a critical body of scientific evidence in support of the 3Rs as a working methodology. The often improved scientific approaches resulting from their application not only benefit animals through better care and handling practices, but go a long way to further our understanding of health and disease with cutting-edge technologies and approaches as animal alternatives.

What inspires me about science is the wow factor, and there’s no lack of it when you look at 3Rs research. From work to understand how an animal is feeling by its facial expressions, to mimicking human organs on USB-sized chips, 3D micro-cancers grown in tiny wells and amoeba that can provide more insights into epilepsy than animals have ever done before. This area of research is coming of age. These innovations and their impacts tell a story not just of inspiring science, but more importantly of science stepping up to the challenge of thinking more objectively about animal use with creative and ingenious solutions that benefit scientifically, economically and morally.

In the face of a dynamic scientific landscape, animal research is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and recent moves by the UK’s research community on being more open and transparent about animal use will certainly help to better inform the public about why and how animals are used in research.

But it’s time the debate moved on, away from the polarised should we or shouldn’t we to the more unified how can we do it better. With almost a decade of research and technology development to call on, the NC3Rs now has a unique opportunity to facilitate more balanced conversations about animals that delve into great 3Rs research and celebrate its impacts on animals and science.

We will be marking the start of our ten-year anniversary in 2014 with a website relaunch, which will contain more accessible scientific content for both the public and our research community. In addition, we will also place emphasis on supporting NC3Rs grant holders to engage their own communities with their 3Rs research by providing training, simple how-to-guides and by making funds available to support events and activities. By encouraging others to champion the 3Rs, we aim to stimulate sustained conversations and raise awareness about the possibilities of this exciting area of science.


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