What is ethical review?

A process that allows for ongoing critical evaluation of the ethical, scientific and welfare issues is essential in any system that regulates the use of animals in research and testing.

This process of ethical review involves evaluating whether individual scientific projects justify the use of animals (usually through a harm-benefit assessment) and consideration of practical issues relating to how animals will be used. The latter encompasses application of the 3Rs, including good experimental design, animal housing, husbandry and care that takes account of the physical and behavioural needs of animals, and related issues such as provision of staff training and assessing competencies. All of these factors can have profound effects on both animal welfare and the quality of the science.

Ethical review is not a single 'event' that takes place during authorisation of a project. It is a dynamic process that should encompass the lifetime of the project from application for funding, through the design stage, to completion of the work, its publication and the application of the results. Throughout this process, every opportunity should be taken to ensure the ethical, scientific and practical welfare aspects are carefully considered.

A range of stakeholders have a role in ethical review at different stages in the life of a research project. Each can add value, since they may examine a different aspect of animal use, or have different priorities. Examples are: 

  • the government regulator who licences experiments (this is the Home Office in the UK)
  • animal care and use or ethics committees who formally authorise projects at a national, regional or institutional level (as in Sweden and USA)
  • bodies within establishments who review research projects and processes from a local perspective to ensure they comply with in-house policies and standards (as in Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Bodies in the UK)
  • a separate national committee with a more overarching role and oversight, who may also comment on selected project proposals or emerging or especially contentious uses of animals (e.g. the Animals in Science Committee in the UK)
  • national and international bodies that regulate the marketing of medicines and chemical products and others whose requirements include tests on animals should consider the legal, ethical and welfare implications of the tests they require (e.g. the European Medicines Agency, the US Food and Drug Administration or the OECD)
  • research funders and journals publishing research involving animals, which have a responsibility to set ethical standards for the research they fund or publish.