"Be brave! As much as possible, get out ahead of issues so you aren’t responding defensively… Show pride in your program and reinforce the message that you are actively working to provide the best possible care of the animals”
The University of Washington has a large and diverse animal research program dedicated to performing cutting-edge research in pursuit of scientific and medical advancements. Like many institutions, UW’s largest animal populations are mice and zebrafish. However, the institution houses several other species, such as pigs, nonhuman primates, and even a few octopuses. Recent initiatives in the UW research program include vaccine development efforts for COVID-19 and Zika Virus, improvement of heart disease treatment, and refining therapies for drug addiction, just to name a few. Though the program has faced vigorous opposition, UW remains a strong advocate for research openness. Openness, they contend, is about “communicat[ing] directly with the public about the excellence of our animal care program, especially in the face of false allegations from groups opposed to the use of animals in research.”
Implementing Openness Principles
The UW approach is simple: make information available and easy to find. For the past several years, the institution’s USDA reports, semiannual reports, and IACUC meeting minutes have been publicly available on the Office of Animal Welfare website. This approach allows the institution to proactively address public concerns by creating a forum to provide context. For example, findings in the USDA report are highlighted and paired with corrective actions to show how the issue was addressed.
Openness also requires balance. While the institution strongly believes in the value of publicly sharing information, the University also recognizes the need to ensure that members of the research community can safely and effectively do their important work. Recently, in a highly publicized case, UW IACUC members were successfully able to defend their right to remain anonymous in public records requests.
Benefits of Openness
The University has identified three major benefits of increased openness:
First, staff morale has increased, even in the face of intense opposition. The institution’s confidence and consistent reaffirmation of commitment to animal welfare serves as a rallying point for passionate members of the UW research community.
Second, increased access to public records may decrease the administrative burden associated with responding to records requests. UW administrative staff are actively working to educate the public about the availability of documents, and hope that the volume of records requests will decrease as public awareness increases.
Third, the institution has an internal resource to fight back against misinformation and false allegations. This allows the institution to increase awareness of and defend the critical role that research plays in medical discovery.
A Word of Advice
Confidence is key, say UW staff: “Be brave! As much as possible, get out ahead of issues so you aren’t responding defensively. Provide context for understanding publicly available information to minimize opportunities for others to exploit and abuse your records. Show pride in your program and reinforce the message that you are actively working to provide the best possible care of the animals.”