Survey of research methods in the neurosciences

27 June 2019

In its advisory report Transition to non-animal research, the Netherlands National Committee for the protection of animals used for scientific purposes concludes that the possibilities for substantially reducing the use of animals in science vary considerably per research domain.

In response to this advice, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality asked the Academy to outline a target situation for reducing the use of laboratory animals in a single scientific domain as a pilot project.

The Academy opted for the labour-intensive neuroscience research field and set up a committee for this purpose under the chairmanship of emeritus professor Wiebe Bijker. This committee drew up an exploratory report, which was then placed in the broader perspective of current developments in neuroscience research. This has resulted in the Academy survey Inventory: The importance of animal testing and possibilities for reduction of this in fundamental neuroscience research (in Dutch).

In the survey, the Academy does not focus on animal experimentation, but on the major, overarching scientific issues regarding the brain and cognition. The question in this survey is whether a certain technique or method can provide answers to important and current research issues. This means that there is no need to look for a one-to-one alternative for each individual animal experiment. This allows for new research combinations and strategies that minimise animal use and provide high-quality research, without disqualifying or completely excluding animal experimentation. For the Academy, it is vital that the quality of research – in a field where Dutch researchers excel internationally – is not curtailed. It appears that by developing new technologies, some research questions can indeed be answered with less use of animals. The survey describes five types of promising developments that are expected to contribute most to neuroscientific research with less animal experimentation in the next few years. The focus on invasive methods in humans is particularly innovative. However, it goes without saying that there are strict human-ethical boundaries involved.

At the same time, the Academy concludes that the techniques and methods described have serious limitations, and that as a result their contribution to fundamental research is and will remain relatively modest for the time being. The Academy cannot make reliable predictions about the development of the number of animal experiments required for fundamental neuroscientific research. In contrast to developments that could potentially reduce animal experimentation in the future, there are developments that, certainly in the short term, seem to increase the need for such. The Academy is in favour of replacing, reducing and refining these as much as possible in order to curtail such experimentation to a minimum.

The extent to which alternatives already offer solutions to the reduction of animal use varies per scientific domain. The Academy is more than willing to explore whether and which other domains offer greater possibilities.