Peta: ‘The UK’s political parties must embrace 21st century science without animals’

The years since the 2019 UK general election have been rocked by change: the global pandemic was followed by a difficult economic recovery, and we have had three prime ministers alongside ongoing Brexit administration. As the country slowly approaches the next general election, so begins that critical period in UK politics when candidate parties are drafting their manifestos – their parties’ promises for the next few years until the election cycle repeats.

During these years of turbulence, including for the economy and the country’s health services, leaders are faced with unique opportunities to leave a positive legacy – for themselves, their parties, and the nation as a whole. And nothing can do more to catalyse positive change in all these areas and more than championing a new strategy to revolutionise UK science.

The current government has announced its commitment to science that benefits social and economic prosperity and to positioning the UK as a “science superpower” by 2030. However, a 2022 report by the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee stated that the nation’s science and technology strategy is “unfocused” and lacks an overarching vision and implementation plan, concluding that the UK’s ambition of becoming a “science superpower” could become an “empty slogan”.

The lead-up to the next general election is a prime moment for parties to commit to a focused vision and strategy for UK science that confronts all these urgent issues. The international scientific landscape offers insights into a way forward, particularly in the deliberate shift away from using animals in science – a key factor that is already changing policy and the future of research around the world. Consider the examples below:

  • The European Commission has committed to developing a European Union roadmap to end all mandated tests on animals for industrial chemicals, pesticides, biocides, and human and veterinary medicines.
  • Members of the European Parliament had close to unanimous support for a resolution calling on the European Commission to develop an action plan phasing out the use of animals in research, testing, and education and accelerating the transition to animal-free methods.
  • The Netherlands established the government-coordinated Transition Programme for Innovation without the use of animals, which offers a platform for accelerating the transition to animal-free research.
  • The US Environmental Protection Agency’s New Approach Methods Work Plan outlines concrete steps the agency will take in the coming years to reduce tests on vertebrates for pesticides and chemicals.
  • In December 2022, US President Joe Biden passed the FDA Modernization Act 2.0, which codifies the US Food and Drug Administration’s mandate to consider non-animal testing methods, instead of requiring tests on animals before new drugs are approved by the agency.

What is motivating these policy shifts? Numerous scientific studies and reviews reveal that experiments on animals translate poorly to effective treatments and cures for human diseases, including the top killers in the UK. For example, of more than 1,000 compounds tested on animals for stroke research – many of which reduced brain damage in rodents – none that reached clinical trials in patients improved stroke outcome. As the chief science officer of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation has said, “We’ve cured mice engineered with this disease over 500 times. The mouse models don’t translate into humans.”

Increasingly, the scientific community is recognising that reliance on animals as models for humans diverts precious resources away from more promising research and delays the development of potentially life-saving drugs and treatments. Far more is to be gained from non-animal approaches better suited to solving biomedical research and regulatory questions than from reliance on animal studies.

Artificial intelligence, computational models, three-dimensional organoids, and advanced chip models, among many other methods of animal-free science, are already being used by countless scientists worldwide. Vital governmental support is needed, however, to accelerate further use and development, so that experiments on animals can end. The cosmetic testing ban offers one example where Europe invested heavily in the development of non-animal testing methods – ones that use high-tech, sensitive tests such as three-dimensional tissue models – with fantastic returns. Humane tests such as these are stories of success, not only in reducing the suffering of animals but also in producing more accurate, human-relevant results.

While the transition towards methods based in human biology is already well underway, the UK is not keeping pace. Innovate UK, the Medicines Discovery Catapult, and the former Department for Business, Innovation and Skills all published reports highlighting concerns over the translation of experiments on animals to results for humans and noted the potential commercial and economic benefits of investing in advanced, human-relevant methods. However, to date, successive governments have done little to implement these recommendations and the number of animals used in experiments in the UK remains high.

In 2022, nearly 3 million animals were used in experiments in British laboratories, with millions more bred and discarded as “surplus” because they were not of the desired sex, lacked certain disease characteristics, or for other superficial reasons. 

Despite government protestations that experiments on animals would not be approved if they were not necessary, almost a third of animal use is for frivolous, curiosity-driven experiments. For example, to investigate how monkeys engage in decision-making behaviour, researchers drilled implants into the skulls of rhesus macaques to secure their heads when locking them into primate restraint chairs. Then, they deprived them of water for 16 hours before placing them in front of a computer to test how they responded to stimuli on the screen. This is just the tip of the iceberg of cruel and wasteful experiments supported by taxpayer money. Each and every year, millions of animals undergo experiments where they may be bled, poisoned, deprived of food, isolated, or otherwise subjected to psychological suffering and physical pain.

The UK public clearly supports a move away from such exploitation of animals, already having demonstrated that they support a phasing-out of animal use and greater investment in non-animal methods. A government-led strategy on these fronts will ensure the UK is responding to and aligning with public opinion and also advancing to the forefront of the paradigm shift in biomedical research occurring today. Only that will allow the nation to achieve the world leadership in science to which it aspires.

As parties are drafting manifesto commitments for the next general election, now is the time for a UK government–led strategy to phase out the use of animals in experiments and reap the lasting benefits that sophisticated, animal-free methods can bring to industry, employment, the economy, public health, and animal welfare. Now is the time to embrace 21st century science without animals. is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.