Ensuring the social legitimacy of animal research: Comparing public and policy expectations

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Sch of Sociology & Social Policy


This project seeks to explore how lay publics 'imagine' the governance of institutions that use animals for medical research in the UK. Of specific interest is how well aligned public expectations of Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Bodies (AWERBs) are with current policy and practice. All academic and commercial organisations using, breeding or supplying research animals must set up a localised AWERB. Amongst other tasks, these committees seek to 'define, develop and reflect their own establishments Culture of Care' (ASC 2018).

Traditionally, public policy regarding animal experimentation has been developed in the politico-scientific sphere. However, there is increasing academic recognition that the traction of such policies is dependent on factors beyond the control of science alone (Nature 2015 :5). Public involvement is now considered a crucial prerequisite to democratic legitimacy and the doctrine of 'good governance' (McLeod & Hobson-West 2016 :792). In animal research, this is arguably required, given the 'tacit social contract between citizens, scientists and the state' (Davies et al 2016).

As part of Home Office requirements for the establishment of AWERBs, the committees were tasked with providing 'a forum for discussion and development of ethical advice to the establishment licence holder', with the wider objective to 'help promote better understanding of the role and value of the AWERB' (RSPCA & LASA 2015 :50). However, as yet, preliminary research suggests that institutions find it difficult to achieve such objectives due to a lack of time/resources (Hawkins & Hobson-West 2017:5). While there has been a push from stakeholders (such as the RSPCA) to help improve the operation of AWERBs, little research has been conducted with regard to public expectations for, and understanding of, their role and remit. Thus, this project seeks to utilise the social sciences to enrich inquiry, to help understand the social and cultural processes that can enhance, impede, improve and refine the use of animals in medical research (RSPCA & LASA 2015 :50), thereby informing the maintenance of the 'social contract'.

This studentship represents a collaboration between the University of Nottingham and the RSPCA. The DTP is for a 1+3 year programme of study in the Sociology pathway. Thus, the first year will be spent completing the DTP Masters in Social Science Research at the University of Nottingham. The following three years of doctoral study will consist of critical literature review of sociological insights into scientific, regulatory, and public understanding of the use of animals in research. This will be followed by further exploration of public attitudes through a series of focus groups. Currently, it is estimated that approximately 6 groups will be required, each consisting of 6-8 members of the 'lay' public.

This studentship will be co-supervised by Dr Pru Hobson-West and Professor Dimitris Papadopoulos from the Institute for Science and Society at the School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Nottingham. Additionally, Dr Penny Hawkins, the head of the RSPCA Research Animals Departments will act as project mentor. The involvement of the RSPCA will provide the opportunity of an internship at the RSPCA headquarters, which will help develop understanding of animal research policy and governance in practice.

It is anticipated that the project will lead to strategies to further and improve the role of AWERBs and animal research governance, by better understanding the relationship between publics and laboratory animal science.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000711/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
2271945 Studentship ES/P000711/1 30/09/2019 30/12/2023 Kathleen Salter