Freedom of Information and Anti-Vivisection Advocacy

From HRA’s experience, obtaining information about what actually happens to animals in research can be a difficult and frustrating process. Questions to the funding bodies are usually redirected to the state or territory departments responsible for animal welfare or the animal ethics committee; and the state departments usually refer you back to the funding body – often the National Health & Medical Research Council. Requests for information – minutes of AEC meetings, annual reports – are denied, and straightforward requests such as statistics are at best “difficult” to obtain and do not provide an accurate account of the purpose for which the animals are used.

This is not a situation unique to Australia, based on research conducted on this subject as a component of a Master’s Degree in Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law. This research looked at The Effectiveness of Freedom of Information in Anti-Vivisection Advocacy in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States via interviews with anti-vivisection organisations in these countries.

There are calls for greater transparency in animal research by researchers, regulators and anti-vivisection organisations, each believing that the more information is made available, the more likely the public will adopt their position on animal research.  In practice, the flow of information is largely dependent on the scientific community and regulators.  There may be resistance to the disclosure of information that could threaten safety, confidentiality or propriety information, or be perceived to be “not in the public interest”’.

Anti-vivisection organisations contend that the information released provides an insufficient level of detail to enable informed debate on the subject, and unnecessarily so, since exemptions should only be used where absolutely necessary rather than to counter legitimate opposition.  In effect, this enables a “selective openness”, which simply serves to maintain the status quo.

Ultimately, whilst information on animal research remains controlled, anti-vivisection organisations must rely upon the gathering of intelligence to develop sound campaigns.  As an advocacy tool, FOI is used to make animal research related requests in order to both gather data for campaigns and bring infringements to the attention of regulators.  Such requests may be obstructed by the allegedly incorrect application of FOI exemptions, the existence of legislation which overrides FOI principles in the sensitive area of animal research, procedural issues such as over-charging of fees, non-responses or delays, or additional measures to prevent transparency imposed by government administrations, as evident from recent removal of public databases in the U.S.

Despite these barriers, anti-vivisection organisations assert that FOI has advanced their objective towards ending the use of animals in research and many feel successful FOI cases have set precedents that information should no longer be classified.  As a result, advocacy organisations have been able to communicate verifiable information, at times discrediting the claims of animal researchers, and more accurately presenting the realities of the industry.

Read the research in full here.

Listen to the HRA podcast episode on transparency here.

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