Symposium at the Messerli Research Institute

Taking Ethical Considerations into Account? Methods to Carry Out the Harm-Benefit Analysis According to the EU Directive 2010/63/EU.

The new Animal Experiments Act which transposed the EU Directive 2010/63/EU into national law in 2012 requires the development of a methodology to evaluate research proposals including animal tests by 2015. This set of criteria will help to balance „harm“ of laboratory animals such as pain, suffering, fear and permanent damage and „benefits“ for humans such as gaining of knowledge.

The Federal Ministry for Science and Research engaged the Messerli Research Institute to develop this set of criteria.

On March 27, the Messerli Research Institute hosted an international symposium. Several well-known experts from the field of ethical evaluation of animal experiments took part. The aim was to develop a comprehensive knowledge base for the elaboration of the Austrian set of criteria. 22 speakers from eight European countries and the USA talked about their experience with the topic and with the transposition of the EU directive in their own countries. The focus was on developing a methodology for a harm-benefit analysis of proposals including animal experiments. Lively discussions showed the challenge of developing such a set of criteria.

A central suggestion was to introduce different levels of decision when evaluating proposals. It was recommended to include former evaluations of proposals, applying the current legal framework, and a harm-benefit analysis. Furthermore, there should be an obligatory retrospective evaluation of animal experiments, which would make important contributions to optimize future evaluations of research proposals.

In the course of the symposium, different concepts such as checklists, scoring systems or comparative methodologies were introduced. Most of the experts emphasized the importance of independent and well-balanced committees. The committees cast their vote if proposals bear an adequate ethical evaluation. Another point of discussion was the integration of the public, i.e. non-specialists, and representatives of animal welfare organizations. According to the experts, this would lead to more transparency in the context of animal experiments. Taking into account the public opinion would contribute to be up to date in the ethical evaluation of animal experiments.

The intense debates did not only expose standpoints. The raised questions seemed to be more important. A central part of the project at the Messerli Research Institute will be to analyze and to answer them. In response to the question about the aim, which shall be reached by a set of criteria and a harm-benefit analysis, it was mentioned to improve research (e.g. by evaluating the methods) and to protect laboratory animals (e.g. by balancing the expected benefits and the harm of laboratory animals).

One suggestion how to carry out an ideal harm-benefit analysis was the already mentioned checklists. They would make ethical balancing easier and support consistent decisions. Another suggestion was a combination of a checklist and a scoring system. Both tools are already in use for the evaluation of proposals including animal experiments. A third suggestion was a strategy that evaluates, based on paradigmatic cases, different programs by comparing them. The challenge for the Messerli Research Institute will be to balance advantages and disadvantages of the methods and to develop an adequate model against the backdrop of Austrian legislature.

According to the experts, there is one risk that has to be avoided when developing such a set of criteria: over-bureaucratization. The set of criteria has to be a user-friendly tool for the harm-benefit analysis that leads to deeper reflection on the single animal experiment.

One essential point was mentioned at the end of the symposium: The Messerli Research Institute must succeed in developing a set of criteria that can be used as an ideal tool for the harm-benefit analysis also in the long term. Therefore, some flexibility in the “tool kit” is necessary, leaving room for new ethical questions and research developments.

In a resume, the experts made out that the actual influence an evaluation will have on research quality and animal welfare, even using the best set of criteria, depends significantly on the legal framework and on political intent.

Program 1

List of speakers 2


The symposium was followed by a workshop on current debates in applied animal ethics on March 28.

Workshop program and list of participants 3