19 March 2021

A true fighter for the 3Rs and animal rights

He has worked in the service of animals for over 40 years. His footprint on the Swedish work within animal experiments is permanent. Staffan Persson retires and leaves the position as responsible for animal experiment issues at Djurens Rätt (Animals rights). We want to highlight a humble giant that has a major importance in the formation of the 3Rs Center.

A portrait image of a fair-skinned man that looks straight into the camera. He is bold and wears a red and blue-striped sweater.

Staffan Persson at Djurens Rätt has had major impact on the 3Rs over the years.

We begin this story in the end of the 1970s. Staffan then wrote his first motion as politically active and the motion was about animal experiments. Different writings like motions, remittances, action plans and decisions in regional ethics committees have become innumerable over the years. Staffan's significance for the 3Rs and animal welfare cannot be overestimated.

Why have you worked with these issues?

– Animal experiments are a complex issue when it comes to rights. Other animal rights areas I have worked with, like fur or food production, are not as complicated. They cover things we could do without. Animal testing is something else. It must be weighed against the importance of getting knowledge, drugs and treatments for our health and survival; although not all experiments aim at it. But the fact remains; humans expose animals to suffering.

The importance of regional ethics committees on animal experiments

He himself has been a member of several regional ethics committees on animal experiments over the years and between his own assignments, he has supported other members. The task that the ethics committees have is crucial in reducing and replacing animal experiments, Staffan says. In his response to the EU Directive, he highlighted the Swedish principle of public access to official documents and its advantage of letting the public read an entire ethics application and not just a non-technical project summary. The Swedish constitution means a lot for transparency and openness, which Staffan believes is crucial when it comes to animal testing.

Staffan has seen how the regional ethics committees have gone from being advisory only to handling permits. During his career, the ethics applications have changed from certain experiments only having to be reported with a few lines of text, to the complex and comprehensive descriptions that must be evaluated and authorised today. The level of detail is higher and greater demands are placed on the applicant, but also on the ethics committee that is to evaluate the application. The better the applications, the better the basis for decisions, which is not always obvious according to Staffan.

– The regional ethics committees’ structure has looked the same since the 80s. Despite the EU Directive and changed conditions for an application, the composition of members is the same. The applications span a longer period of time and contain much more information. The fees make the applicants reluctant to divide their application into several different applications. In my opinion, this is a major problem and the conditions for the regional ethics committees need to be reviewed.

Djurens Rätt and the 3Rs

Staffan Persson is a regular member of Sweden's National Committee for the Protection of Animals Used for Scientific Purposes. For the past two years, he has held the role of second vice chairman and has been a member of the committee's working committee. As a member of the National Committee, Staffan has closely followed how the idea of a national competence center for 3Rs issues have taken shape and led to the formation of the Swedish 3Rs Center.

– Djurens Rätt has worked for many years to establish a national 3Rs Center, Staffan says. We have also promoted state funding, which provides a political will and a legitimacy for the issues at all levels.

His curriculum vitae with assignments and representation in national contexts is almost as extensive as an ethics application. It comes to various regional ethics committees, the former Central Committee on Experimental Animals and its ethics committee, the former Animal Welfare Agency, remittance for the EU Directive, the Swedish Board of Agriculture's Council on Experimental Animals and later the National Committee.

The fact that the National Committee now has an executive body in the Swedish 3Rs Center is one of the most important steps for the 3Rs in Sweden, Staffan says.

– There is an allocated budget for staff and for carrying out projects and activities. Things will happen in a completely different way compared to when we assume that one can run these issues on a non-profit basis. Sweden needs a national coordinator, a hub that can hold together such an extensive area that affects so many different actors. I think we have succeeded in that, in a very short time, Staffan says.

The right way to organize our 3Rs work

Elsewhere in Europe, there are both larger and smaller 3Rs centers, but all are organized in different ways. The connection to the National Committee that we have in Sweden, Staffan believes, is the right way to go in relation to Swedish conditions.

– We have a broad and overall competence in the National Committee, its Group of Experts and the 3Rs Center. Since we are organised together, the collaboration becomes natural and I think we have a supporting form for how members of the National Committee actively work with the Center, says Staffan.

– I am also convinced that the location of the Center at the competent authority for regulations regarding animals used for science is part of the success, says Staffan. I also think it is valuable that the Center is organized as a special branch within the authority having its own budget. The fact that the Center is organised within an authority and not a university is good; the Center will not conduct research but improvement work.

Staffan is eager to highlight the financing of the Center in the government's budget this fall. However, he also underlines that this can never be taken for granted, that we need to continue the work for long-term financing and independence.

What can a small 3Rs Center really do?

– We can do a lot! We can establish these issues with the ones working with animal experiments. A 3Rs Center itself cannot replace any experiments, but if we as a national actor share knowledge, meet the ones working with experiments and connect them with others – then the 3Rs will become a natural part of daily work. We have many different target groups, but I think that we have found good ways to communicate with them in their own contexts.

Examples of how the 3Rs Center can make a difference are our recommendations and guidelines such as our recent publications on methods to tag and mark fish and group housing for male mice. These are recommendations that one can start to use without heavy investments in training or equipment. The 3Rs Center can also share good examples of 3Rs work from different Swedish organisations, how colleagues at other sites work with refinement and improvement of animal welfare.

It is also about meeting new groups that are important for the 3Rs development. By inviting people to different conversations, we create meetings and opportunities, says Staffan. We will let different professional roles and professions meet and in this way gain understanding of each other's knowledge. There are hierarchies within all interactions and organizations, which must be broken in order to lead to change.

Finally – what do you want to say to the National Committee now that you are leaving?

– That we are on the right track, says Staffan after a while of reflection. That the way we work, the way we conduct conversations and dialogue, is right and gives results.

– To continue the work with all three Rs and push the issues to be seen and highly valued in society. The conversations must take place at a political level in order to make those who decide realize the importance of this, not only for the sake of the animals but also for the sake of research and our future. I want us to work to ensure that universities and those who fund research also have 3Rs strategies. This is important and it gives the 3Rs Center a good starting position for cooperation.

– Our support to the regional ethics committees on animal experiments is important. The training and projects that are underway are good, our recommendations are good, but here we can make a big difference in several ways. Again – we need to talk to those who decide at the political level; make them aware of the committees' conditions and the need for change. The National Committee can be an important energy in that work.

Finally a personal question. What will you do now?

– I will think about that, says Staffan. In any case, I will write about animal experiments. So far, it is just a plan, so we will see what happens.

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