Animal research on BBC Radio 5 Live

Mice at a research facility

Mice at a research facility (credit: UAR)

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I found out BBC Radio 5 Live were doing a 2-hour programme from an animal research facility in Oxford – they love a bit of controversy. I certainly didn’t think they’d feature a mouse being humanely killed live on air. Presenter Victoria Derbyshire got some great interviews with researchers and lab technicians, but some tired old cliches lived on, courtesy of Animal Aid.

Things started badly – with the news that a poll commissioned for the programme showed that ‘almost 1 in 3 adults in Britain think the government should ban all forms of medical testing on animals‘. Erm, correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t that mean that over two thirds – a majority – DON’T think it should be banned?? And these results clash with the regular MORI polls on this topic, the most recent of which showed that 85% of the public accept animal research, with certain conditions.

But things got better after that point. I was really impressed that the Medical Research Council’s Mary Lyon Centre had allowed the programme-makers such good access. It was great to hear Professor Steve Brown, Director of the Mammalian Genetics Unit, explain the importance of understanding the biology of human diseases, and how studying mice can give huge insights and help find new treatments.

The Centre is breeding and studying mice to find out more about conditions like diabetes and obesity – truly life-threatening problems that affect millions of people across the UK and all over the world.

Victoria Derbyshire interviewed technicians who look after the mice, who explained that they really do care about their welfare. And the interviewers were told that the last on-the-spot Home Office inspection of the Centre had been just a month ago – backing up the researchers’ assertion that standards are always kept high.

This being the BBC, ‘balance’ was important, which unfortunately meant we had to hear from Dr Adrian Stallwood of Animal Aid. Although he is of course entitled to his opinion that animal research is morally wrong, it was really disappointing to hear his ridiculous assertion that animal research ‘doesn’t deliver benefits for humans’ being trotted out again. It’s easily proved false, and it was a shame the presenter didn’t do more to tackle him on that point.

And I was annoyed the issue wasn’t given a bit more context. For example, the programme began with the statistics, which show that 3.6 million animals were used in research in 2010. But that number pales in comparison with the hundreds of millions of animals killed for food each year in the UK – the RSPCA quotes about 40 million cattle and over 900 million poultry. Given that the majority of people in the UK eat meat, and that slaughter in abattoirs is far less strictly regulated than animal research, I think this would have been a really relevant point to include.

The balance was better expressed by the listeners – many said they wanted to see if the programme would convince them that animal research is necessary, but it hadn’t. Others told how they’d been affected by serious illnesses, and how grateful they were that research into new treatments is continuing. But whatever their opinions, I was really heartened that so many people had bothered to tune in.

The programme didn’t shy away from the tricky issues, directly tackling how the mice are killed (usually by breaking their necks), and what kinds of tests they’re put through as part of the research.  The researchers explained all this clearly, which some really helpful comparisons – saying that some tests are as quick as the sort of pin-prick tests doctors would use to check a person’s reflexes.

Overall it was a great programme – anything that gets this research out in the open is worth it, and MRC Harwell deserve huge credit for taking part, especially when every other facility turned the programme down. Perhaps the next time the BBC covers animal research, more of the lab workers will be confident enough to use their full names, without fear of reprisals from activists.

You can listen back to the programme online or on iPlayer for the next week.

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