How can we tell whether public opinions are changing? How can we tell whether views on particular issues have changed compared to some time ago? As animal advocates, our aim is to achieve change to policies, regulation and legislation that improves the lives of animals. Changing public opinion alone can make a difference to the lives of animals – when, for example, consumers stop buying the eggs of caged hens -, and it is essential to achieve regulatory and legal change.
Surveys and polls are a common way of gauging public views on political and social issues. They are important tools to monitor and evaluate animal advocacy, and provide direction for future strategies.
So what do we know about awareness of and views on animal experimentation, and whether they are changing?
Overseas surveys tell us that the public’s views on animal experimentation are changing:
- a Pew Research Center survey from 2015 in the U.S. informed us that approximately equal numbers of people favour and oppose the use of animals in scientific research (47% vs 50% respectively), while the vast majority of scientists (89%) favour animal research, a difference of 42 percentage points.
- a Gallup poll in 2015 found that a third of Americans want animals to have same rights as people (compared to 25% in 2008), while 62% said animals deserve some protection but can still be used for the benefit of humans.
- A 2017 Gallup poll in the U.S. found a 51% acceptance of medical testing on animals, a decreased acceptance rate compared to polls in previous years.
- In an Ipsos MORI 2016 poll in the UK, 65% (compared to 68% in 2014) of people said they could accept the use of animals in research as long as it is for medical purposes, and there is no alternative.
- In Germany in 2017, a Forsa poll found 71% of respondents in favour of a ban on painful animal experiments, while 23% did not consider such a ban necessary.
In Australia, the results from a survey commissioned by Humane Research Australia (HRA) have just come in: Nexus Research surveyed 1,006 people in April 2018. The sample was quota controlled by age and gender, and selected in proportion to the population aged 16+ years in each State/Territory. A survey of this size is considered sufficient as a representative sample of the Australian population, with an error margin of around ±3%. More information about the survey can be found on the HRA website.
HRA commissioned similar surveys in 2008 and 2013. Below are some of the findings, comparing how people’s awareness and views changed over the 10 years since the first survey.
Awareness of animal research has changed over the years. While in 2013 only 57% of people were aware of animals being used in research, this increased to 71% in 2018. In the latest survey, people under the age of 30 and those with an income between $80,000-$120,000 had the highest awareness of animal research (both 79%).
In 2013 and 2018, people were asked whether they were aware that monkeys and other non-human primates are used in medical research in Australia. The vast majority of respondents were not aware of this (91% in 2013, 82% in 2018). On the other hand, over the last five years the number of people who know that non-human primates are used in laboratories has doubled from 9% to 18%.
In the last survey, a new question was added: ‘Do you consider that our governments provide sufficient information to understand the extent of animal experimentation in Australia?’ About the same proportion as those who were not aware of primate research answered this question with ‘no’ (81%).
Positions against animal experimentation are typically based on two arguments: ethical considerations that deem inflicting suffering on sentient beings as morally wrong, and/or scepticism about the scientific validity of animal experimentation. Both were explored in the surveys.
Do humans have the moral right to experiment on animals? In all three surveys, more than half of the respondents did not believe this, and a significant proportion was unsure. More men than women (31% vs 15%) and more people aged 70+ than people under 30 years (34% vs 21%) believed that humans have the right to experiment on animals. People living in households with pets expressed a much stronger view against animal experiments than those who did not live with pets (64% vs 53%), while the latter expressed greater indecision (13% vs 22%).
To gain more nuanced views, questions were asked about the purpose of research and the species of animals used. About three in four people opposed the use of animals for developing household products and cosmetics testing in all three surveys. Interestingly, this proportion decreased slightly over the 10-year period, while the proportion of those opposed to basic/scientific research, teaching/educational purposes and developing pharmaceuticals for people (medicines/tablets) rose slightly. A question about environmental research was only asked in 2018.
People do not feel as strongly for rodents (mice and rats) and rabbits as they do for dogs and non-human primates. While concern for all four species increased slightly over the years, half as many people opposed research on rodents compared to dogs.
The level of discomfort and pain inflicted on animals also influenced people’s views: the more painful the procedures, the greater the opposition to animal research (2018: from 33% to 72%).
Overall, more women than men expressed ethical concerns, as did younger people (<30) compared to older people (>70), and people who live in households with pets compared to those who do not.
All three surveys asked respondents about their views on the transferability of results from animals to humans. However, the wording of the question changed in the 2018 survey:
‘Do you believe or not believe that it is always safe to transfer results from animal research (e.g. from rabbits, mice, rats and dogs) to apply to humans?’ (2008 and 2013)
‘Do you believe that it is safe to transfer results from animal research (e.g. from rabbits, mice, rats and dogs) to apply to humans?’ (2018)
The change in wording might explain the significant increase in the number of people who believed that results from animals apply to humans (2008: 14%, 2013: 13%, 2018: 35%). About a third of respondents were unsure. In 2018, significantly more men than women (42% vs 29%) and older people aged 70+ compared to those aged under 30 years (50% vs 31%) believed that it is safe to transfer results from animal research to apply to humans.
In 2018, people were asked whether they were ‘aware of any current alternatives instead of using animals in research for human medicines. Only 20% responded that they were aware of such alternatives.
It is no surprise then, that the vast majority of respondents favoured ‘allocating a proportion of medical research grants to finding scientific alternatives to animal experiments’, although this support decreased over the years from 79% to 67%. I have no explanation for this trend.
Change, more change
To my knowledge, this Nexus survey is the only of its kind in Australia. How sure can we be that it describes accurately Australians’ opinions about animal experimentation? Nexus Research recruited survey participants from a panel. While there have been concerns expressed about this type of recruitment, ‘the quality of the answers obtained from online panels does not seem to be worse than that from more traditional methods of data collection and, in some cases, may be better.’ So, for the time being, this is the best we have.
As the president of Humane Research Australia I’d like to think that our work has contributed to greater awareness of animal research and increasing compassion with the animals used in laboratories. It is clear that the public wants accurate and comprehensive information about animal research. It is also clear that the public needs to be better informed about alternatives to animal research. Without such knowledge, how can people develop informed views and considered moral judgment about animal research?