In animal research, public interest is secondary

When you're competing nationally and internationally for prestige and donors, who has time to disclose pesky statistics?

Yesterday, I talked (slash-blogged) about UBC’s openness in choosing a new Dean of Education, calling it a model of transparency. Of course, in any large institution transparency only goes so far. If there’s a net loss in disclosing information, chances are it’s not going to happen.

For example, look at UBC’s action (or lack thereof) in releasing information about animal testing done on campus. Thus far, the university has stalled in responding to Freedom of Information requests filed by Stop UBC Animal Research (STOP). Why?

“Under our regulatory system, we would need the permission of the researchers to reveal the information,” said VP Research John Hepburn to The Ubyssey (disclosure: it’s the paper I’m editor of). “We’re never going to get that permission.”

UBC argues that because the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC), the regulatory body that oversees animal testing, doesn’t require individual universities to disclose specific information, they’re not obligated to. Furthermore, they would require the researchers themselves to sign off on disclosing what they do.

This is a bit of a dodge though. If they really wanted to, UBC could release general numbers regarding research activity, as is required in the United States under the Animal Welfare Act. But what would be the point? There is no evidence the university is doing more or less research on animals than other research-intensive institutions in Canada. Yet having the information out there, while other Canadian universities stay silent, would simply put UBC at a competitive disadvantage—for researchers and for reputation.

It’s something Hepburn himself hints at. “[If you] release information without the medical context—in other words, if you ask a member of the public, ‘If I am going to do the following thing to a monkey, or to a cat or to a mouse, what do you think?’—the natural response would be that sounds like something that’s not very nice to do to that animal,” he said. Which is true. People don’t like hearing about what happens to animals, regardless of the possible long-term benefits, and regardless of the regulations in place. There’s a reason it’s kept private.

But hang on. Shouldn’t public universities act in the best interest of, well, the public? Large Canadian universities may be provincially funded and operated, but they compete nationally (and sometimes, internationally) for students, prestige, and donors. The incentive system is skewed towards acting like a private corporation would.

So while the debate in Vancouver on animal testing will go on, this isn’t a UBC issue—it’s a federal regulation one.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.