Evaluating harms and benefits

A harm-benefit analysis in which the potential benefits of a research project are weighed against the harms likely to be caused to animals - whether done by the competent authority or by an ethics or animal care and use committee - forms the basis of ethical frameworks underpinning regulations on animal experiments in the European Union and elsewhere.

There is ongoing debate about how the harm-benefit assessment should be done. The UK Animal Procedures Committee explored this in their Review of cost-benefit assessment in the use of animals in research (2003) (PDF 1464 KB). The report examines all of the factors that should be taken into account when assessing and weighing harms and benefits and although now more than 10 years old, remains the best available review.

Other useful documents include: our Lay Members' Handbook (2015); the CCAC guidelines on animal use protocol review (1997) (PDF 60KB); and the FELASA report on Principles and practice in ethical review (2005) (PDF 511KB). These all contain general principles that are applicable internationally.

Key points 

Assessments of harms and benefits are matters of judgement, which by their nature are contestable. Such judgements inevitably change over time, because they are influenced by prevailing societal attitudes, which in turn can be affected by concerns about particular research directions, developments in technology (e.g. genetic alteration and stem cell technology) and increased understanding of animals and their ability to suffer.

Opinion will differ on what should count as a harm or a legitimate benefit, and on the relative weights that should be accorded to different kinds of harms and benefits (for a broader discussion of 'benefits', see the Lay Members' Handbook (2015).

All potential sources of harms throughout the lifetime experience of the animals need to be considered. This includes any suffering associated with housing, husbandry, transport, restraint and humane killing, as well as that caused by procedures. Identification of all sources of potential harm helps to ensure that the 3Rs are applied, that suffering is reduced as far as possible and that every effort is made to improve animal welfare.

Assessing benefit can be even more difficult because for those outside the immediate scientific field it may not be easy to understand the scientific detail and judge the necessity - and quality - of research projects.

The RSPCA Lay Members' Handbook provides a list of questions and `points to consider┬┐ when evaluating projects, and this is also addressed in detail in the RSPCA/LASA document Guiding principles on good practice for Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Bodies (2015) (PDF 1.76MB)

Several schemes setting out different scoring systems to aid decision making have been proposed, but the `weighing┬┐ is not a simple mathematical equation! Ultimately, the balancing of harms and benefits is a matter of moral judgement which depends on the perspectives, priorities, interests and approach of the individuals involved in the process. Involving participants from a variety of perspectives, including those who have no vested interest in the outcome of the review, helps to ensure the integrity of the process.