Animal research provides essential insights that may lead to the development of new treatments in the long term. When conducting experiments, researchers must comply with the 3R principles (“replace, reduce, refine”).
Animal testing is the subject of much debate both among the public and in the research community. Research sheds light on basic biological processes, thus providing an indispensable basis for the subsequent development of new medical treatments. The insights gained benefit humans and animals alike. The SNSF funds high-quality research based on the latest advances in science and technology. Projects are not funded if they use outdated methods or are based on animal models that are unsuited to answering the research question. To enable meaningful conclusions, the animals' natural behaviour needs to remain as uninhibited as possible.
By setting such high standards for research projects, the SNSF is acting in accordance with the 3R principles. This guideline, issued by the research community itself, stipulates that researchers should, wherever possible, seek alternatives to animal testing (“replace”), use as few animals as possible (“reduce”) and minimise the distress of animals (“refine”). The research community is continually working on improvements, with the aim of conducting as few experiments involving animals as possible.
Stringent Swiss standards
Animal protection laws in Switzerland are very strict compared with other countries. Each individual animal to be used in an experiment needs to be approved. Cantonal animal testing commissions have been mandated by parliament to weigh the probable suffering of the animals against the possible benefits to humans of the knowledge gained from the experiment. The SNSF only finances projects for which an animal experiment permit has been issued.
For animal testing conducted abroad, the SNSF also requires appropriate, country-specific approval that is comparable to Swiss standards. At the same time, it supports the continuation of animal testing in Switzerland as preferable to outsourcing these experiments to research institutions abroad.
In accordance with their parliamentary mandate, cantonal animal testing commissions approve research projects only when they adhere to the 3R principles (“replace, reduce, refine”). The aim is to achieve research goals using alternatives to animal testing whenever possible ("replace"). If the testing is not or only partially replaceable, the number of animals must be kept as low as possible (“reduce”) and the suffering inflicted on them minimised (“refine”).
The SNSF also underpins the 3R principles through its emphasis on scientific quality in research projects. Today, most approved projects involving animal testing also include alternative methods such as cell cultures or computer simulations – currently the most common alternatives to animal testing. Many of the projects funded by the SNSF in biology and medicine do not involve any animal testing at all.
The SNSF is not focused on funding projects devoted purely to developing methods. Its main interest is to investigate questions that are driven by hypotheses. New alternatives to animal experiments may be discovered in the course of such research. To specifically promote 3R methods, the federal government, together with Swiss universities and private industry, are jointly financing the Swiss 3R Competence Centre (3RCC).
- Advancing 3R – Research, Animals and Society
- 3R principles (“replace, reduce, refine”)
- The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique
- Swiss 3R Competence Centre
- Animal experiments and 3R (1/4): Wound healing in mice and cell cultures
- Animal experiments and 3R (2/4): Mucous membrane as a model
- Animal experiments and 3R (3/4): Immune cells live in a complex world
- Animal experiments and 3R (4/4): Interview with animal ethicist Herwig Grimm
- Horizons, March 2018 “Animal testing: less is more”
- swissuniversities factsheet on alternative methods
Necessity of animal research
Although the vast majority of biomedical researchers also use other methods, animal testing is indispensable in understanding health and disease in living organisms. The complex interplay of different tissues, cell types and signalling pathways can often only be understood at the level of the whole organism. Such research towards a fundamental understanding of life therefore forms, over a period of many years, the knowledge base for identifying the causes of illnesses and for developing drugs and treatments.
Research on humans rarely produces unequivocal findings on the causes and consequences of pathological changes. Even if we keep on increasing the knowledge gained from cell cultures, significant gaps will remain. For instance, new drugs and treatments may only be tested on human subjects once the animal experiments prescribed by the law have been completed.
Alongside the primary benefits for humans, animal testing also provides important knowledge on species protection and behavioural biology which helps to optimise, for example, the breeding and husbandry of farm animals or medical treatments for pets.
Cantonal animal testing commissions
Final permission for animal experiments is granted by the cantonal veterinary offices. The ethical trade-offs between the probable suffering of experimental animals and the expected benefits for humans are assessed by the relevant cantonal animal testing commission. The commissions are composed of animal husbandry experts, members of animal welfare organisations, researchers and laypeople who are free of any conflicts of interest.
The members of the SNSF Research Council, though just as independent, are in contrast all active researchers whose job it is to assess the scientific quality of research proposals. As the composition of the animal testing commissions better represents the values of society, the SNSF deliberately refrains from making an additional ethical assessment of animal experiments. This independent dual assessment of all proposed animal experiments ensures both that the science is of high quality and that the prescribed animal welfare criteria are met, and it complies with the legal mandates of both institutions.
Guidelines and laws
Animal testing in Switzerland is very strictly regulated compared with the rest of the world. Researchers must demonstrate to the cantonal animal testing commissions that the expected gain in scientific knowledge justifies any suffering caused. Researchers and animal carers are required to take specific training and annual continuing education courses. They also have to submit a yearly report to the cantonal veterinary office on each individual animal used in experiments.
In addition, researchers are obliged to follow the ethical guidelines of the Ethics Committee for Animal Experimentation of the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences (SAMS) and the Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT). Any pain caused in experiments must be alleviated. Each laboratory or institute has an animal protection representative. Animal experiments for cosmetic products were banned in the EU in 2013.
- Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office (FSVO)
- Swiss Animal Welfare Ordinance (German)
- Swiss Animal Welfare Ordinance (French)
- Swiss Animal Protection Act (German)
- Swiss Animal Protection Act (French)
- European Directive (2010/63/EU)
- SAMS and SCNAT Ethical Principles and Guidelines on Animal Testing
- SAMS and SCNAT Ethics Committee for Animal Experimentation
Animal Research Statistics
All animal testing conducted in Switzerland using vertebrates, cephalopods and crayfish requires a permit and is reported in the annual statistics of the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office (FSVO). All animal testing is assigned a grade of severity from 0 (e.g. for observational studies) to 3 for severe distress (e.g. implanting aggressive tumours). The majority of animals (over 60 per cent) are used in basic research and are mainly subject to little or no stress (severity grades 0 and 1 together account for over 70 per cent).
In 2019, the SNSF funded nearly 6200 projects with a total amount of 970 million Swiss francs. Thereof, less than 140 million francs went to 600 or so research projects involving animal testing. This corresponds to 10 per cent of all projects and 14 per cent of the total funds allocated, figures that have remained stable over the years. However, only a portion of this amount is actually spent on animal testing. Up to 80 per cent is used to cover the salaries of the people who work in these projects.
For some time now, researchers applying for funding to the SNSF have had to declare whether one of the 3Rs is a focus of their project. That said, separating alternative methods and animal testing is difficult in practice and the distinction remains largely artificial. Many established experimental approaches can now be carried out without animal testing, but they are not declared as alternative methods and therefore do not appear in the statistics. In the majority of projects, animal tests are conducted to confirm results already achieved earlier using alternative methods.