What is transparency? According to McLeod and Hobson-West, the answer depends on your perspective. Education and transparent sharing of selected information is utilized by the animal research community to counter misinformation and mischaracterizations of the use of animals in science. Anti-vivisection groups contend that research institutions misrepresent the nature of animal research and believe transparency will illuminate these secrets. While funding agencies and governments wish to enhance trust in science and government by increasing transparency. All of these groups want an increase in transparency but their definitions and desired outcomes differ significantly.
Many research institutions, primarily in the Europe, have moved towards engaging the public surrounding the work that they conduct. In 2014, universities, charities, commercial companies, research councils, umbrella bodies and learned societies in the UK signed the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research. In addition, there are virtual tours of research facilities that can engage the public to explore inside these facilities. However, this sort of engagement is not universally embraced. While there are examples of exceptional institutional transparency in North America, these are the exception. Many research institutions prefer to manage risk rather than engage with the public. Science Magazine drew attention to the trans-Atlantic transparency gap as a contributor of decreasing public acceptance, in the United States, for the use of animals in science.
A recently published study by Mills et al, from the University of British Columbia’s Animal Welfare Program suggests that as transparency increases at research institutions so does public support for laboratory animal professionals and the work they perform. The study enrolled participants from across the United States and Canada and found that the public’s perception of laboratory animal technicians were positively influenced by increased transparency. The increase in transparency also increased public support for the research being conducted, regardless of the three species examined (mice, dogs, cattle). They also found that most had neutral responses, indicating that improving institutional transparency can influence perceptions. The authors conclude that adopting policies and practices that allow greater levels of openness to the public would benefit both research organizations and their employees.
Transparency is one step that increases dialogue between the public and those that work with animals in science. An increase in transparency is generally seen as a method to increase trust and open public discussion surrounding this issue. Currently, in Canada and the United States, there is not an effective mechanism to integrate societal concerns into scientific experimentation. Publicly funded scientists operate under a social license for the work they conduct and the democratization of knowledge necessitates an effective integration of these societal concerns. Institutions must stop viewing transparency with the public as a risk and discuss animal research in an open, engaging and transparent manner.