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Bias & Waste

In recent years the science community has begun looking closer at how we test drugs, chemicals and concepts. The growth in scientific research as an industry has encouraged better scrutiny of the quality of the research itself.

Researchers have a vested interest in conducting more and more experiments because each new test brings funds to the team and its employer. While laboratories are publicly committed to reduce, replace or refine the use of animals, research teams are at the same time incentivised to win the chance to design, carry out and publish more research each year.

Public statements by research teams about this obvious conflict of interest is one of four measures that can tell us whether research is biased. This works because by describing the possibility of a new cure, a new product or a cheaper solution, researchers are more likely to win funding and publication of their findings in the most respected journals. As a result it’s clear that being transparent about any incentive is essential, otherwise research might take place to suggest proof of a popular and exciting breakthrough as quickly and easily as possible, only for a second study to show no positive results at all.

Clearly then, a requirement to openly describe a conflict of interest would discourage wasteful, poorly designed, unnecessary or dubious experiments using animals.

Other types of bias include:

  • Failing to assign animals to different groups of an experiment (for example one group receiving a drug, the other receiving nothing), at random. A team aiming to show favourable results could freely select healthier animals for the test group, and unhealthier animals for the control group.
  • Failing to undertake the experiment while ‘blind’ to the outcomes. If researchers know which animals are subject to the test and which are not while they’re conducting it, that’s the equivalent of asking people which cola they prefer without covering up the branded bottles.
  • Failing to specify the size of the trial before starting out. This type of bias would allow a researcher to just keep adding animals to a test until they found the result they were looking for.

All four areas of bias introduce doubt about results, proving nothing except that a drug, chemical or approach may or may not be effective, which was already the case before the animal test subjects endured life in captivity, suffering through the test itself, and a wasted death.

The outcome of a biased test will of course be a call for – that’s right – another experiment, which if properly designed without bias will show no evidence of a positive result after all – wasteful science by design.

How widespread is the problem? How many experiments include the types of bias listed here, all of which would be so simple to avoid?

At Naturewatch Foundation we’re interested to read reports from the University of Edinburgh this year and from 2007, from Stanford University in 2013 and from the National Centre for the 3’R’s in 2009. Here are the results.

  • Two thirds of experiments involving animals include all four types of bias[1]
  • Only 1 in 100 experiments specified a sample size at the start of a trial[2]
  • Just 30% of tests blinded researchers from test subjects, 25% randomized membership of test groups and 12% published a conflict of interest statement[3]
  • On the basis of likelihood of biased results, only 5% of experiments should have led to trials in humans[4]

Reading this analysis undoubtedly each of the research teams included in these analytical reports would try to describe the reasons for such poor design, which appears to be a gross misuse and waste of animals’ lives. So before we move on to the topic of secrecy in animal testing in the next section, let’s consider the last word on bias and conflict of interest…

According to doctors at Yale and Michigan Universities, 97% of studies published in 2009 and 2010 showed positive results of drug trials when those studies had been funded by pharmaceutical companies, while only 69% showed favourable results among the group funded in other ways.[5] Despite the total secrecy under which animal testing takes place in the UK, we’re forced to ask, could the same influence be relevant here?