VetSens Research Ethics Statement
This document is set about to state the principles we adopt here at VetSens when it comes to dealing with research ethics. The document lays down the foundations of protecting and preserving the participants (sometimes a non-human animal) interests, which, should always prevail over those of society and science where there is a conflict (British Medical Research Council Ethics Guide, 2004). At all times researchers and research procedures should protect the welfare (health, wants and life), and respect the autonomy and dignity of animal (and human) participants. This fundamental perspective can be articulated through the following principles.
- Respecting and caring for every participant without discrimination
Researchers should acknowledge and respect the individual characteristics of every one participating in the research regardless of categorisations such as species, sex or provenance; and they should treat all research participants (humans or animals) as individuals equally deserving of consideration and care according to their welfare requirements.
- Garnering participants’ mediated and contingent consent
Researchers should obtain free and voluntary informed consent to the involvement of animal (as well as human) participants in research activities from those who are legally responsible for them and involved in their day to day care (as is the case with non-competent children; when doing research with competent adults and children, consent should be obtained from the participants themselves). For companion animals these might be their human companions; for animals living in shelters and zoos these might be the facilities’ managers and the individuals’ carers. Obtaining this form of mediated consent should be seen as a continuing process, not just as a one-off occurrence (British Medical Research Council Ethics Guide, 2007), and legal guardians should always be informed that they can withdraw participants from the research at any time without needing to provide an explanation.
Researchers should garner the voluntary consent of the animals to their involvement in research activities and obtaining this form of contingent consent should be seen as a continuing process, not just as a one-off occurrence (British Medical Research Council Ethics Guide, 2007, 2004). To this end, research set-ups should be designed to facilitate participants’ assessment of their immediate situation throughout procedures. Procedural conditions should always, and without exception, afford animal (and human) participants the possibility to choose whether to engage with the research, as well as the possibility to withdraw at any time, either temporarily or permanently, from the research. If participants (animals or non-competent children) become uncooperative, or present signs of stress or distress, researchers should regard this as a refusal to take part in a procedure (British Medical Research Council Ethics Guide, 2004). Researchers might make reasonable attempts to entice the participants to engage with the procedure again at a later stage, but should immediately desist if the participants’ negative response persists.
- Doing research that is relevant to participants and consistent with their welfare
Individual animals (as well as vulnerable humans such as very young children) should be involved in research practices only when these have the potential to generate scientific understanding that may be a basis for improvements in the development of animal-centred technology that is relevant to them. More specifically, researchers should only work with animals of a particular group (e.g. species) if the intent is to advance knowledge or develop technology that is directly or indirectly beneficial to the individuals involved in the research as well as other individuals of the group they may represent.
Research procedures that involve the participation of free-living animals should take place in the animals’ natural habitat, while those that involve domesticated animals (e.g., companion animals and animals living in farms or zoos) should take place in the animals’ familiar settings or, if necessary, in appropriate research facilities, provided that this did not impact negatively on their welfare. Animals should not, under any circumstances, be bred or taken from the wild, and kept in captivity (permanently or temporarily) for the sole purpose of involving them in research activities.
Whenever possible, researchers should endeavor to design research procedures that can be carried out in the participants’ habitual environments and blend in with their living conditions. Researchers working with free-living animals in their natural habitats should seek to minimise interference with individuals as well as the populations and ecosystems of which the individuals are a part. Researchers working with domesticated animals should ensure that their presence and interference is not unwelcome to the individuals involved and any environ- mental disturbance is kept to a minimum.
Where it was not appropriate for research activities to be conducted in naturalistic settings, these could be conducted within specific research facilities or scientific venues, provided that this did not affect the welfare of the participants or compromise public safety; animals (as well as children) should be accompanied to such facilities or venues by their legal guardians or legally delegated carers. For the duration of the activities, animals should remain under the supervision of their legal guardians or legally delegated carers or researchers, who should supervise both the interaction of research staff or the public with the animals, and the interaction of the animals with research staff or the public (e.g., a guardian, whose dog was visiting a lab to test a prototype or an venue to demonstrate it, should be able to ensure that researchers or members of the public did not interact with the dog in ways that might cause the dog stress, and that the dog did not behave aggressively). Throughout these interactions, animal welfare and public safety (including the safety of the animals involved) should be the uttermost priority.
Where visits of non-resident animals were required, research facilities and scientific venues should provide safe and comfortable accommodation, including an appropriate location for retreat and appropriate dietary provisions. Animals should only spend the night within research facilities or scientific venues under the following circumstances: 1) if the animals were already housed at the facilities or venues for other purposes (e.g., mice who already live in research laboratories to be involved in other research procedures); 2) if the facilities or venues allowed the animals’ legal guardians or delegated carers or researchers to spend the night with them, and staying overnight did not negatively affect the welfare of the animals (e.g., an ambient technology installation that could offer comfortable accommodation to both a dog and their human).
- Avoiding research procedures that may be harmful to participants
Research practices should ensure an acceptable balance of risk and benefit for animal (as well as human) participants and researchers should protect participants from physiological and psychological harm at all times by employing research methods that are non-invasive, non-oppressive, non-restrictive and non- depriving. The anticipated risks to participants should be negligible, that is resulting at worst in no more than a slight and temporary negative impact (e.g., if a dog tested an interface which momentarily frustrated them through unintentional excessive complication in the interface design). Under no circumstances should the welfare standards afforded by research practices ever fall below the welfare standards envisaged by frameworks such as the British Animal Welfare Act 2006, or equivalent frameworks in other countries.
Research practices should never have the potential effect of causing animal participants pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm (British Animals Scientific Procedures Act 1986 Amendment Regulations 2012). Pain, suffering, distress and lasting harm encompass any material disturbance to normal health (defined as the physiological and psychological and social well- being of the animal) (British Animals Scientific Procedures Act 1986 Amendment Regulations 2012). This also includes disease, injury, and physiological or psychological discomfort, whether immediately (such as at the time of an injection), or in the longer term (such as the consequences of the application of a carcinogen) (British Animals Scientific Procedures Act 1986 Amendment Regulations 2012). In other words, research practices should never be such that they require regulation under frameworks such as the British Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 Amendment Regulations 2012, or equivalent frameworks in other countries.
Research practices conducted in the wild should never involve the intentional killing, injuring or taking of animals, as well as the possession or control of live or dead animals, their parts or derivatives (including selling, offering for sale, or possessing or transporting for the purpose of selling them) (British Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981). This also includes damage to, destruction of, or obstruction of access to any structure or place used by animals for shelter or protection, or even simply disturbance of animals occupying such structure or place (British Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981). In other words, research practices should never be such that they require regulation under frameworks such as the British Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 or equivalent frameworks in other countries.
Researchers might need to combine their own research practices with procedures that imply a higher level of risk for individual participants, in order to develop technology that can ultimately benefit them. However, this should only be the case under either of the following conditions: 1) if such higher risk procedures were necessary for the welfare of individual participants (e.g., the researcher might incorporate a procedure into an animal’s visit to a veterinary practice for diagnostic or therapeutic purposes); 2) if such higher risk procedures were already part of individual participants’ daily life and habitual experience (e.g., the researcher might analyse the functionalities of a conditioning chamber habitually used by a group of mice in behavioural studies for the purpose of suggesting improvements to the usability of the device). In either case, such higher risk procedures should never be carried out by researchers.
Researchers should always take into account the cumulative effects of research procedures, possibly associated with other procedures (e.g. husbandry), on individual participants. They should ensure that such cumulative effects do not cause the research procedures to impact on the participants to the extent that welfare standards fall below those envisaged by frameworks such as the British Animal Welfare Act 2006, or equivalent frameworks in other countries; or cause unregulated procedures (e.g., a visit to the vet) to require regulation under frameworks such as the British Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 Amendment Regulations 2012, or Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (British Animal Welfare Act 2006), or equivalent frameworks in other countries.
Under no circumstances should the animals recruited to take part in research ever be used in any scientific procedures that do not fully comply with the ethical principles of animal-centred research.
- Assessing research proposals and obtaining expert support
A competent, independent scientific and ethical review body should assess and approve any research proposal before an research project or activity commences, in order to ensure that the research design appropriately meets both scientific and ethical standards.
The competent scientific and ethical review body assessing the research proposal should ensure that the research team has direct access to the appropriate animal welfare expertise so that any welfare issues that might emerge during the research are promptly recognised and properly addressed. Whenever deemed necessary by the ethical review body assessing the research proposal, researchers should receive appropriate training before undertaking the research envisaged by the proposal under review.
If, during the research, researchers become concerned for the safety and welfare of a participant (animal or human), they should promptly seek advice from the competent ethical and scientific review body within their research institution as to how the case should be dealt with and whether it should be reported to the relevant authorities.