Please note: We will be significantly updating this section of the website during 2013 to take account of recent legislative change within the European Union and a number of other developments. This will culminate in the launch of a new dedicated Ethical Review microsite by September.
Scientific research involving animal use should always take place within a framework that allows for ongoing critical evaluation of the ethical, scientific and welfare issues. Ethical review is integral to this process. It requires evaluation of whether individual scientific projects justify the use of animals, and consideration of practical issues relating to how they will be used. A process of ethical review is essential within any system that regulates the use of animals in research and testing.
The basis of ethical review is the harm-benefit assessment, in which the harms likely to be caused to animals used in a research project are weighed against the potential benefits of the work to assess its justification. Such decisions involve value judgements that vary with the perspectives, priorities and interests of those making them. These judgements inevitably change over time, because they are influenced by prevailing societal attitudes, which in turn can be affected by concerns about particular research directions, developments in technology (e.g. genetic engineering and stem cell technology) and increased understanding of animals and their ability to suffer.
The practical issues dealt with in ethical review relate to minimising harms and maximising any benefits, ensuring the latter are taken forward and applied. Full implementation of all 3Rs, including good experimental design, animal husbandry and care that takes account of the physical and behavioural needs of animals, and other related issues such as staff training and competencies are all factors that must be taken into account. These can all have profound effects on animal welfare and science.
A dynamic process
Ethical review is not just a single 'event' that takes place before a research project is authorised. It is a dynamic process that should encompass the lifetime of a project from the project design stage, through to completion of the work, its publication and the application of the results. During this process, every opportunity should be taken to ensure the ethical, scientific and practical welfare aspects are carefully considered.
A number of stakeholders can input into ethical review. Each can add value, since they may examine a different aspect of animal use or bring a different set of perspectives to the issues under discussion. Examples are:
- the regulator who authorises the work - in the UK, this is the Home Office
- national, regional or institutional ethics or animal care and use committees that authorise projects (as in Sweden and Canada)
- institutional committees that comment on research projects and make sure they comply with local policies and standards (as in UK 'Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Bodies')
- a separate national committee with a more overarching role than authorisation of individual projects. This may comment on selected projects or aspects of animals use e.g. the UK Animals in Science Committee (which replaced the Animal Procedures Committee in 2013).
- research funders in academia or industry and journals publishing research involving animals, which have a responsibility to set ethical standards for the research they fund or publish
- regulatory bodies and others whose requirements include tests on animals, which should consider the ethical implications of the tests they require.
Discussion of the main issues relating to ethical review such as: assessing harms and benefits; retrospective review; and housing and care of animals, along with details of regular events the RSPCA holds for members of ethical review committees, can be found in the other pages in this section.