Lee questions representatives of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) on animal testing, and why a national database isn't in place to prevent unnecessary duplication of animal experiments. While the NHMRC provides "ethical guidance", it does not monitor duplication of animal testing. However, it is pointed out that unnecessary duplication of these experiments may be picked up in the peer-review process. It is also ascertained that the number of animals used in animal experiments in Australia annually is quite low. Prof. Kelso and Ms Robertson are representatives of the NHMRC.
Senator RHIANNON: How many grants have been made that involve using dogs or cats in animal experiments over the last two years?
Prof. Kelso: I would need to take that on notice. I do not have in my papers before me in numbers of that type. The numbers will be low, from my knowledge of what we fund, but I think it is better if we provide you with some specific data.
Ms Robertson: There is a significant lag in the information that we get. Obviously, grants go for either a three-year or a five-year period, so, in terms of what people apply for in use of animals and what they end up using, can differ quite markedly. It is not until the research is finalised and the report comes through to the NHMRC that we can go back and look at that. The information that we would have now would be from maybe 2011.
Senator RHIANNON: I might ask for a longer period. I was going to request a certain breakdown, so I will put that in a notice. Are you aware of where the animals come from?
Prof. Kelso: For dogs and cats, we would not normally be aware of where they come from. The individual grant applications may have that information, but it is not information that we collect. The specific issues about where animals are derived from, where they are looked after and all of those issues, are handled by institutions within state jurisdictions. Apart from the final reports we get on numbers of animals used by each project, we do not have detailed information that relates to the housing or deriving of those animals.
Senator RHIANNON: So you do not collect that information?
Prof. Kelso: We do not. But the bureau of animal welfare, or the equivalent in each state and territory, would be the appropriate body to collect that information.
Senator RHIANNON: Since the beginning of 2014, has the NHMRC funded any research using non-human primates?
Prof. Kelso: Since the beginning of 2014? It is possible. Again, we would be able to provide numbers specifically on that. We will not be able to provide numbers on actual numbers of animals used, but we would be able to provide you with information about any research grants that have been awarded that proposed the use of non-human primates for the research.
Senator RHIANNON: Do you need to take that on notice, or do you have that data?
Prof. Kelso: We have some information—
Senator RHIANNON: I did not think it involved many animals.
Prof. Kelso: We do have some numbers here. I do not know how many project applications, but we know that in 2013 we had a total number of 125 animals that were requested to be used.
Senator RHIANNON: 125?
Prof. Kelso: Yes.
Senator RHIANNON: Which primates were they?
Prof. Kelso: They are most likely to have been marmosets or macaques, but I do not know from the data in front of me here. Again, we can find that out for you. What I can also tell you from the numbers we do have from earlier reporting is that, in general, the numbers used are far fewer than the numbers requested to be used in the original proposal.
Senator RHIANNON: Were they animals bred in Australia? Is it correct that there are three primate breeding centres in Australia to supply animals for these experiments?
Prof. Kelso: I know of two: one in Melbourne and one in Sydney. I do not know whether animals can be imported for any research. Ms Robertson might know the answer to this.
Ms Robertson: There is a requirement under the animal welfare code for the care and use of animals used in research that animals are sourced from Australia in the first instance. If animals do need to be sourced from outside Australia, then a very strong case needs to be put forward with a declaration under the CITES treaty.
Senator RHIANNON: I might put something more on notice, but I can come back to that. In the June 2014 budget estimates I was advised that the code of conduct for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes provided measures to avoid duplication of research involving animal experiments. This was in answer to my question about why a national database is not maintained to ensure animal experiment research is not duplicated and results made available to other researchers. I was just interested in how effective the code of conduct for the care and use of the animals is and how that is operating.
Prof. Kelso: It is not the role of the NHMRC to monitor that aspect of the use of the code. Our role is to provide the ethical framework and to update it from time to time based on experience with the recent version and the advice of many people in the area, whether they be users of animals or ethics experts or others. Our role is to provide that framework. Any administering institution that receives funding from the NHMRC for research that uses animals must agree to abide by the terms of that code. The code is relied on very heavily by the institutional animal ethics committees, which provide approval in each institution—in my experience, a very rigorous process—for research that is done. All of the monitoring happens at the level of the institution, the animal ethics committee and the state or territory bureau of animal welfare or equivalent.
Senator RHIANNON: Is that picking up this issue of duplication, or is there nobody covering that?
Prof. Kelso: I do not know myself how it would pick up the issue of duplication.
Senator RHIANNON: It sounds like it is something that may not be covered. from the way you have described how it works.
Ms Robertson: The code itself is premised on the three Rs. It is around reducing, refining and replacing, where possible. Certainly at NHMRC we have tried to embed the whole idea of reducing and replacing animal use where possible. We have had eminent speakers come out to Australia in the past, where we have webcast their presentations to young researchers to try and get people thinking about a reduction of animals used in research where it is possible.
Senator RHIANNON: From the way you have described it, it would seem as though the next step would be to be proactive about duplication. It sounds as though you are raising awareness, but there is no follow through.
Ms Robertson: I think the difficulty is what the remit of the NHMRC is and what we can do within the limited resourcing that we do have. As Professor Kelso has already said, we do provide the ethical guidance. Animal welfare is one area where the code has been enacted in legislation in each state and territory. We would see any action that would be taken to actively do something in that space as the bailiwick of state and territory governments.
Senator RHIANNON: So it is not an issue of a lack of resources; it is more that your brief does not lend itself to that work. Is that how you would describe it?
Ms Robertson: Yes.
Prof. Kelso: May I add, though: there is another level, where it is not monitored by us, but it is taken into account when assessors view grant applications for work. They take into account whether the work has already been done. If it is a straight duplication where there is no value from duplication, then that ought to be picked up by assessors during the review process. Sometimes, though, it is critical that there is duplication. The most important research must be duplicated. There cannot be an automatic exclusion of research because it repeats and builds on something that has been done before, because that is an essential part of the research process. But a straight duplication for no extra benefit would be picked up in the peer review process and would reduce the competitiveness of the application.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. That is very useful.