Public expectations of the NVS
Maggy Jennings and Penny Hawkins, RSPCA
Surveys have shown that vets are in general highly trusted by the public, because of their role to
ensure the health and welfare of animals committed to their care, as stated in their declaration to
the RCVS. However, there do not seem to be any published surveys regarding the public's views on,
or expectations of, laboratory animal vets. For this paper, therefore, we asked a wide range of
friends and colleagues, constituting a broad spectrum of 'the public', what they would expect of vets
in laboratories. The answers ranged from the view that this presented vets with an unacceptable
conflict of interest, through the opinion that vets should be the ones who carried out all procedures,
to more practical expectations regarding their authority in prioritising animal welfare within science,
providing knowledge and expertise in animal health and welfare, giving a well considered opinion on
ethical issues, supporting other Named Persons and contributing to the Animal Welfare and Ethical
Review Body. The presentation will aim to generate further discussion on these views and
expectations, why they may be held, and how realistic they are in actuality.
The RSPCA, which represents a significant sector of the public, believes the role of the NVS to be
crucial to the effective implementation of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (ASPA) and
has clear expectations of the role, which will be covered later in this paper. But what might the
wider public think? There are two points which might provide a simple answer:
• Animal experiments are a high profile issue and polls have shown that people are concerned
about animal suffering and want to see it reduced, or ended altogether.
• People associate vets in general with caring for and treating animals, to ensure their health
and welfare and stop them from suffering.
These points might lead people to think either that "vets should work in labs and their role is to stop
suffering in experiments" or "vets could not possibly work in labs because of the animal suffering
that occurs there" - and we have heard both views expressed. However, we were interested to
discover whether there was any factual information in the public domain that could provide a more
detailed - or nuanced - view on what the 'wider' public thinks and expects of the role of the NVS.
2. Sources of information searched
There have been numerous surveys of public opinion on the use of animals in scientific research and
testing (e.g. Ipsos MORI 2014), but is there any information on how the general public views the role
of the Named Veterinary Surgeon (NVS) in establishments where animal procedures are carried out?
We researched this question using a number of different sources and approaches, as listed below.
Legislation should, in general, reflect public opinion (although laws may lag behind prevailing
attitudes) and so should provide some clues to public expectations. In the case of animal use in
scientific procedures, legislation around the world requires that vets have a role in the regulation of
such use, though the exact nature of the role may vary from country to country. The role of the NVS
in the UK as set out in the Home Office Guidance on the Operation of the ASPA (Home Office 2014,
pp 72-74) is probably the most comprehensive anywhere in the world. However, although the
Guidance is freely available, public awareness of it is likely to be very low.
2.2 Public opinion polls
Public opinion on the veterinary profession as a whole is high - the recent RCVS/BVA national
opinion poll of 2000 members of the public showed that "94% of the public trusts the veterinary
profession generally or completely" (Anonymous 2015). However, the focus of the poll was on vets
in practice, and in searching the web we could not find any comparable survey specifically
addressing the public’s views on - or expectations of - vets in labs.
The regular Ipsos MORI polls on the use of animals in research from 1999 to 2014 have focussed on
whether or not the public accepts animal use and whether they had confidence in its regulation.
Respondents were clearly very concerned about animal suffering and the need to prevent this as far
as possible, but there did not appear to be any mention of the role of vets per se either in the
questions posed or in the answers.
2.3 Consultations for the Concordat on Openness
RSPCA Research Animals Department staff were involved in the development of the public
consultation workshops carried out for the Concordat on Openness in 2013 (UAR 2015). The
workshops comprised groups of people selected as having no specific knowledge or interest in
animal experiments, so were a useful sample of a genuine 'general public', and provided a potential
source of information.
2.4 Informal survey of friends and colleagues
In the absence of formal information, we asked a wide range of friends and colleagues, constituting
a broad spectrum of 'the public', what they would expect of vets in labs. This did not constitute a
proper survey, but it did provide a good sample of the range of views likely to be held within the
wider population. Everyone we talked to thought it was an interesting and important topic which
deserved further exploration.
2.5 The RSPCA view
The RSPCA has a supporter base of over 500,000 people, and so represents a significant sector of the
public which is concerned about animal suffering. Reducing suffering in experiments is a high
priority for the Society and its supporters and it has well defined views on the role of the NVS and
other Named Persons under the ASPA.
3. Summary of comments received
Information collected from 2.3 to 2.5 above provided comments from three categories of people:
i. Those that knew nothing i.e. people with no specific interest or background in animal
experiments, including participants in the Concordat-related workshops
ii. Those that knew a little i.e. people with an interest in animal welfare and a little knowledge
of animal in research and testing (including participants in the Concordat-related workshops
once these had started); and
iii. Those that knew a lot i.e. animal welfare organisations (RSPCA and FRAME) and others with
3.1 Those with no specific knowledge of animal experiments
The conclusion from talking to 'ordinary' people i.e. those with no knowledge of, or particular
interest in, animal experiments, is that it is doubtful whether the 'average member of the public'
actually knows that vets do have a role in the research environment; and they certainly do not know
anything about the role of the NVS. Even some veterinary students do not seem to know about the
NVS role given this quote from a participant in the LAVA Extramural Scheme (PLF 2015): "My
placement under the LAVA EMS-scheme was a massive eye-opener. Despite being a final year vet
student, I had no idea what the NVS actually did and the true nature of animal testing..." This should
be a serious concern. (There is of course plenty of information about the role of the NVS on many
different laboratory animal related websites, but you would need to have a specific interest in the
topic and know where to look.)
Nevertheless, three common themes emerged from discussions:
• Conflicts of interests
Some people questioned how vets, who loved animals and had dedicated themselves to looking
after them, could work in an environment where animals were deliberately caused pain, suffering or
distress. How could that possibly fit with the declaration that a veterinary surgeon makes to the
RCVS? That is:
"I promise and solemnly declare that I will pursue the work of my profession with integrity
and accept my responsibilities to the public, my clients, the profession and the RCVS, and
that above all, my constant endeavour will be to ensure the health and welfare of animals
committed to my care."
• Carrying out scientific procedures
In the Concordat workshops, several participants expected that vets would carry out all scientific
procedures on animals on the grounds that they would be well trained, skilled and competent. The
thought that a non-veterinary trained person could carry out procedures on animals was considered
to be wrong.
• Level of authority
Once participants in these workshops gained a better understanding of the regulation and operation
of animal experiments, their concerns focussed on ensuring that 'welfare officers' (presumably
including vets as well as other animal care staff) should have enough seniority to "stand against
senior research teams" and put the case for animal welfare against other considerations (Ipsos MORI
It was suggested that there would be various ways an institution could signal the enhanced role of
the ‘welfare officer’ to the public. This could include the officer having a job title which clearly
showed they were at the highest level of the organisation; having a role in all project licence
applications; being able to request CCTV footage of any procedure; and having a clear line of contact
with the Home Office Inspectorate and a good relationship with external animal welfare
3.2 Those who knew a little
There were some additional common themes expressed by those who knew a little about animal use
in science. In particular they expected vets to:
• speak for the animals who cannot speak for themselves, championing the animals' cause;
• treat animals kindly;
• see things from the animals' perspective;
• speak out when they see 'bad things';
• be able to 'make things better';
• have the dedication and authority to stop or prevent animals from suffering.
One person added that they hoped the vet "would be approachable, readily available and would
instil a thoughtful attitude in other staff."
3.2.1 A cautionary word
One issue to be aware of is that some people in this category had been influenced by websites from
establishments explaining their use of animals and referring to veterinary care as a part of this. For
example: [the University] "also employs a group of trained vets who are specialised in caring for
research animals. Their roles include advising researchers on topics such as designing the most
ethical experiments, and the use of pain relief and anaesthesia. These vets are on call round-the-clock
to provide emergency care to animals when needed."
This is, of course, all true, but given the popular mindset that the presence of a vet will ‘make
everything alright’ for animals, in our view it is somewhat disingenuous for establishments and other
organisations to use the attending vets to try to allay concerns about, or 'normalise' animal use.
3.3. Those who knew a lot
We have unashamedly based the category of those that knew a lot on the RSPCA's view! However,
many of the points were also echoed by others working in the field including vets, animal
technologists and other animal welfare organisations with whom we also discussed the issue.
The RSPCA has always supported and promoted the NVS role. In our view, the knowledge, expertise
and experience of the NVS is absolutely crucial in influencing an establishment's culture:
• helping to prioritise animal welfare within science;
• providing knowledge and expertise in animal health and welfare and the 3Rs;
• setting standards nationally and internationally
• giving a well considered and independent opinion on ethical issues;
• supporting other Named Persons; and
• contributing to staff training and standards of competency.
These come together with the NVS's role in the Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Body (AWERB)
which we see as crucial, as did the Home Office since the minimum AWERB membership set out in
the Home Office Guidance requires "at least one of an establishment's NVSs".
3.3.1 Some concerns that cause conflict with expectations
The role and responsibilities of the NVS, as set out in the Home Office Guidance, deal with most of
the RSPCA's expectations provided the Guidance is stringently interpreted and implemented.
there is a problem
nearly all the requirements are about advising on animal
welfare and good practice for scientific procedures, whereas the Society, and we think the public,
would hope and expect that the NVS would be able to ensure these things. This leads to concerns
that conflict with expectations, since the problem with ‘giving advice’ is that people may not take it.
The key concerns in this respect that we have encountered during our work within the scientific
The NVS may not have the necessary support, authority, or sometimes experience, to
challenge scientists (particularly senior ones) and prevent them 'going too far' - for example,
with respect to the amount of instrumentation to monitor multiple parameters an animal is
subjected to, or the length of time instrumented animals are kept.
There may be a 'cultural belief' that one cannot tell scientists what to do even when they
are using poor or outdated techniques that negatively affect both animal welfare and
iii. When the NVS is a vet in practice, he or she may have a different concept of what is 'normal'
in a laboratory situation and may not be up to date with 3Rs related issues.
iv. Internal politics, pressure of work and cost constraints may tie hands with respect to
improving animal welfare and applying the 3Rs.
v. There can be conflicts of interests between animal welfare and the interests of the
establishment where animal welfare is, in reality, not going to be the highest priority. In
some cases the interests of animal welfare may conflict with intellectual interests in the
science or the demands of clients or funders.
We find these issues hard to accept and believe that the wider public would find it equally so.
Points (i) and (ii) are particularly problematic. The ASPA requires suffering to be minimised, and
implementing this should have priority over both 'tradition' and 'academic freedom'.
3.3.2 Resolving concerns and realising expectations
The above concerns need to be resolved if the expectations of the NVS role are to be realised. In our
experience, resolution is most likely to be achieved in establishments where there is a good culture
of care, all Named Persons are well supported and serious efforts have been made to engage
scientists with animal welfare, the 3Rs, ethical issues and the Named Persons' roles. The AWERB
clearly provides a good focus for developing this sort of culture - which is also one of its functions
(see RSPCA/LASA 2015). There are other useful initiatives which help to raise awareness, for
example: posters, induction packs and training focussing on 'know your NVS', or 'know your AWERB',
so there is no excuse for not understanding the importance of the NVS and AWERB roles.
4. Concluding comments
We recognise that our search for information and discussions do not amount to a proper survey of
public expectations of the NVS roles and responsibilities. Nevertheless, we consider it can be
concluded that the wider public has little or no knowledge of the presence, let alone the role, of the
NVS in research facilities. It is therefore difficult to say categorically what people’s expectations are.
However, on the basis of their views of vets in general, they would probably expect the NVS to be
the animals' advocate, to see things from the animals' perspective and to prevent or at least
minimise suffering. We also suspect that if people knew more about animal research and testing
and how it is regulated, their expectations would echo those of the RSPCA, with the emphasis on
ensuring good welfare and good practice – not just advising on this – and they would want the NVS
to ensure that animals are respected and well treated at all times. That would mean raising
awareness and resolving the concerns detailed above, which we believe should be a priority for
LAVA for the immediate future.
We leave you with some questions: what, in an ideal world, would you want the public to know
about and expect of the NVS? And should you first find out what they think the NVS does and what
they expect the NVS to do?
This directly relates to the Concordat on Openness, which raises another question: how will LAVA,
which has signed up to this, be ensuring that it complies in full? The Concordat requires signatories
to provide ‘clear information about the nature of [their] own involvement with animal research’.
This presents the opportunity (and a requirement!) to inform the public about the nature of the
NVS’s involvement. How, then, does LAVA see its involvement in the Concordat developing,
especially with respect to dealing with issues such as: the level of support and authority the NVS has
in practice; advising on, versus ensuring, good animal welfare; and conflicts of interest in all senses;
as well as minimising the risk of being used as part of a 'defence' of animal research? The Concordat
also requires honesty about the harms to animals and limitations of research rather than simply
focussing on its benefits. Vets are ideally placed to do this in our view.
Anonymous (2015) Survey suggests public trusts vets. Veterinary Record 176:
Home Office (2014) Guidance on the Operation of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986.
London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office
Ipsos MORI (2014) Attitudes to Animal Research in 2014: A Report by Ipsos MORI for the Department
for Business, Innovation & Skills. London: Ipsos MORI; download at https://www.ipsos-
Ipsos MORI (2013) Openness in Animal Research: The Public’s Views on Openness and Transparency
in Animal Research. See http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/ and search for
‘Openness in Animal Research Public Dialogue’
PLF: Webmaster, Site Administrator, LAVA Council Member, International Man of Mystery (2015)
The LAVA EMS Scheme; download at http://www.lava.uk.net/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=6
RSPCA/LASA (2015) Guiding Principles on Good Practice for Animal Welfare and Ethical Review
Edition; download from
UAR (2015) History of the Concordat. See http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/ and
search for ‘History of the Concordat’