Participants discussed the structure and functioning of the protocol review committees responsible for approving animal-based research protocols in each of the countries. There was general desire for increased openness and public access to animal research protocols, as well as a desire for balanced selection of committee members and recruitment methods that reduce biases and consider other perspectives.
3.1.1. Protocol Review Committee Structure
To relieve any power imbalances between members within protocol review committees (e.g., one community representative versus a majority of university scholars), participants suggested the number of community members be increased, with the intention of increasing the diversity of views. One participant noted that “...at a committee level, it’s more important to have a diversity of views and actors instead of just having more numbers and expect that greater numbers will bring diversity.”
Participants also discussed the need for improved recruitment methods to avoid institutional bias in the selection of committee members. As an example, in Sweden local political parties and animal welfare organizations select laypersons to represent community values on ethics review committees. It was also noted that the protocol review process should be independent from the institution where research takes place: “We need more thought on the committee structure to make [for a] more independent review process.” In Sweden, the protocol review committee is not affiliated with the institution where the protocol will be implemented, but this was not the case in countries represented by other participants. In all other countries, the protocol review committee is directly affiliated with the institution, and community member selection is less democratic (e.g. new community members selected because they were acquaintances of existing committee members).
These sentiments echo those highlighted in previous literature (e.g., [29
]). In particular, Schuppli and Fraser [31
] found that, among other factors, the effectiveness of ethics review committees was influenced by committee composition and dynamics, recruitment of members and member turnover. Schuppli and Fraser [31
] highlight a potential bias towards institutional or research interests. This bias results from: (1) membership being dominated by scientists, (2) poor leadership by chairpersons that prevented full participation of community and minority members, which leads to poor committee dynamics, (3) “community members” being affiliated with the institution and (4) the motivation of some members to pursue a personal agenda rather than adhere to the committee’s mandate. Other research has looked at the importance of committee structure but considered the role of sub-committees and whether and how these can maximise opportunities for ethical review [32
3.1.2. Protocol Review Committee Function
There was a discussion on the need for a robust and informed decision-making process; specifically, a process that people can trust. It was recognized that some decisions to allow animal research to proceed might not be in line with societal values, so there is a need to engage the local and national community in a broader dialogue related to animal research.
“…there’s a lot riding on the people who actually sit around the table. Whether they’re the researcher, or the community rep, or the veterinarian, or the Chair, there’s a lot tied to that. Individual history, personal experience, personality, lots of things like that. So how do we get to a place where we have a robust decision-making process that is also kind of, you know, almost repeatable?”
“I don’t know if the analogy of the jury system might work…if you took the same case to 10 different juries, you’d get different decisions, right? And somehow, for me anyways, that doesn’t bother me. But the case [of] the animal ethics committee maybe bothers me a little bit more. And I think that’s because I’m somehow less trusting that the process being followed in that community is really, fairly reflects the, well, that the process works …”
Participants specifically discussed the role of the protocol review committee Chair and highlighted the view that the Chair must provide the leadership to empower all members of the committee to voice their concerns: “We need the right leadership present on a committee to take charge and to speak up on the ethical issues on the protocols and to keep asking the right questions. So, we need a good Chair to allow consensus regarding the protocols we use for approval and rejection.” This was considered especially important when trying to ensure that community representatives are fairly included in the decision-making process and are not overwhelmed with jargon or technical details.
It was generally agreed that review of animal research requires a broader value judgment, not just a review of the technical details or the impacts on the animals involved. Broader ethical review may be limited by the expertise of the members or by committees specifically asking members not to review the social value of the research and only focus on harm mitigation. It has been noted elsewhere that the protocol review process typically focuses more on technical details than on a broader value judgment [33
]. The call for a broader value judgment has also been made elsewhere [34
It was also generally agreed by the participants that there should be increased openness from protocol review committee members (and institutions) about: (a) the functioning of the committees and how decisions are arrived at and (b) approved protocols. Participants largely agreed that committee members should not be bound by confidentiality and should be able to share information outside the committee (with the exception of proprietary information). This is particularly important for community representatives who may need broader support for their role in the committee. There was also a suggestion to build on the UK model of publishing lay summaries to create a searchable online resource for all approved protocols, including the numbers and types of animals involved. Providing the public an opportunity to engage and comment on proposed animal research utilizing lay summaries has been tested in Canada [36
Some researchers may have concern about the public release of certain information in their protocol, so there should be some mechanism to redact the protocol with the provision of footnotes justifying the case. It was agreed that certain information should remain confidential, including the names of any research staff. The discussion about keeping names confidential focused on the perceived risk of animal rights activism; this speaks to the tension between openness and perceived security risk that has been discussed elsewhere [2
In addition, a certain level of confidentiality for ethics review committees might be important so that members feel safe to engage in open conversation with committee members. Overall, there was agreement that some aspects of animal research should be released into the public domain, whereas others could remain confidential. While there was agreement that lay summaries of approved protocols should be made available to the public, no consensus was reached on which specific components should be available. However, it was suggested that openness should be the default, but that confidentiality could be requested in special cases to protect researchers’ personal safety and intellectual property, “… there should be more of a default to openness, with exceptions for proprietary research that you would write in and say, well, I need to be exempted from this requirement for openness.”