Lord Winston, the country's most famous medical scientist, sparked controversy yesterday when he called for more animal experiments in Britain to save human lives.
In comments which drew the ire of anti-vivisectionists, the Labour peer and television celebrity warned in a Lords debate that British scientists were being strangled by red tape that was hindering the prospects of medical advances.
Already, many leading scientists were so frustrated, they were subcontracting key animal experiments to colleagues in the United States where research licences were easier to obtain, Lord Winston said. He told the Lords it took two or three months to get a research licence, and even a minor change in scientific procedure mid way through an experiment meant that the licence had to be renewed.
"In the US, where I work a great deal of the time, I can get proper, ethically peer-reviewed licences to do work on large animals, not just mice, within two or three weeks," he said.
Gill Langley, a leading opponent of animal research who sits on a government-appointed committee overseeing licence applications to the Home Office, said: "I have no doubt some scientists are doing animal research in some countries where regulation is slacker. I also know the Home Office has made efforts to reduce the bureaucracy and set itself target dates to award licences.
"But I'm not at all convinced there is too much bureaucracy. You need enough administrative power to apply the law. It's more a case of scientists saying, 'We don't like the manner in which animal experiments are regulated here'," said Dr Langley, an adviser for the Dr Hadwen Trust, which investigates alternatives to animal research.
Lord Winston told The Independent that bureaucratic red tape was causing a "research drain" to the United States, with a net loss of patents and intellectual property which could drag Britain behind in the international race to understand and exploit the benefits of the human genome, which promises to revolutionise 21st-century medicine.
The peer, head of fertility studies at Imperial College London, also criticised the Government for its failure to inform people about the benefits of animal experiments, which are portrayed as cruel and unnecessary by anti-vivisectionists.
"There needs to be much more clear communication for the public about how valuable it is for their own health and their children's health and what has been achieved with the sort of work now and in the past," Lord Winston said. "But the Government has done nothing about it and I think that is something that really should be much more actively pursued. One of the things Government is not doing is explaining clearly what the advantages of this research are. The advantages are colossal. Many people have no idea what's going on because so few scientists are prepared to put their head above the parapet."
For years, senior scientists, including several Nobel laureates, have complained to the Government about the time and effort it takes to apply for and gain a Home Office licence to do even the most basic research involving animals.
Lord Winston, who leads a word-class IVF research team at the Hammersmith Hospital in London, said he has had to resort to sending some of his experiments to California because of the long delays in Britain. "So many animal licences do not involve any kind of suffering to the animal at all and yet it can be quite a long time getting a licence," he said.
"Some of us are commissioning work in the United States because it was taking too long for us to get a licence in the UK. It's a research drain and that does have quite important consequences because if there is a patent involved ... some of that IPR [intellectual property rights] will have to be shared."
Lord Winston said a vast area of modern medicine, such as antibiotics and cancer research, could not have been done without research on laboratory animals. "We have gained a huge amount of knowledge we could not have gained any other way."
Dr Langley said: "I believe [scientists such as Lord Winston] think there is too much emphasis on ethics and too little emphasis on what they perceive as scientific benefits."Reuse content