Bristol University turns down £24,000 donation to end forced swim animal research

The university turned down the offer, saying it would ‘compromise our academic freedom’


Bristol University has turned down a £24,000 donation from animal rights campaign group PETA in return for stopping forced swim animal research, saying it would “compromise our academic freedom”.

The forced swim test involves placing rats or mice in an inescapable long cylinder of water and measuring their response to stress. It is used to study the impact of potential antidepressants on behavioural despair.

It has received vocal criticism from PETA, who have deemed it “bad science”. The animal rights organisation is not alone in this, with studies suggesting the test has “poor accuracy”.

Scientists at the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) have also claimed that it is “no longer considered a model of depression”, concluding that it cannot predict the efficacy of new antidepressants.

In a letter sent by PETA addressed to Professor Evelyn Welch, the vice-chancellor and president of the university, the donation of £24,000 was offered in return for the permanent ending of forced swimming tests in 2024.

The organisation urged that “the tide has turned against forced swimming tests,” with Bristol Uni “being one of the last remaining institutions in the UK to still conduct these cruel, obsolete tests – and in the largest numbers.”

“The forced swim test does not translate to humans, yet the University of Bristol continues to defend it,” PETA Vice President of Programmes and Operations Elisa Allen said.

“PETA is calling on the vice chancellor to drop this cruel and pointless experiment and use our donation to support innovative animal-free research or any other worthy cause that leaves animals in peace.”

But the university turned down this offer, with a spokesperson for Bristol University saying: “Under our Policy for the Acceptance and Refusal of Donations, we are unable to accept PETA’s offer as it would compromise our academic freedom.”

The spokesperson added that the vice-chancellor is willing to meet with PETA, “after they were unable to attend the last scheduled meeting in November at short notice.

“We are committed to a culture of openness and transparency regarding the research carried out here at Bristol, ensuring the animals are treated with compassion and respect. We keep up to date with the latest thinking on all aspects of research using animals (including advances in welfare) and have robust and thorough ethical review processes in place for every project”

Bristol University continues to defend the tests however, despite action taken over the last three years by PETA and students within the university. In March last year, a group of students staged a sit-in at Beacon House after the university’s decision to renew its license to test “a total of 4,000 rodents for a further five years”. 

The PETA campaign since 2021 has included storming Bristol University neuroscience festival, setting up billboards around Bristol, and even dressing up as dinosaurs and zombies to draw attention to the issue.

In May 2023, activists ambushed the vice-chancellor at a New York alumni event. They chanted: “Evelyn Welch has blood on her hands … the University of Bristol has blood on its hands.”

This matter has also attracted high-profile celebrity attention, with the endorsements of Will Poulter, Joanna Lumley, Mark Rylance, and most recently in May 2023, Richard E. Grant, who have all urged the university to stop this practice.

PETA’s campaign has recently made notable gains within the government. Last week, home office minister Lord Sharpe of Epsom said: “I aim to completely eliminate the use of the forced swim test”. This came after a committee of experts, the Animals in Science Committee, looked into the tests and recommended they should be phased out if alternatives that don’t involve animals being treated this way could be found. 

PETA applauded this move as one step closer to a total ban but maintained that the campaign against Bristol Uni continues. 

The university website responded to criticism of the test by saying: “We recognise there are differing views about the use of animals in research, including some concerns around whether it is ethical.

“The forced swim test and forced swimming have been approved as valid models to study the neurobiological processes underpinning how the brain deals with and adapts to stressful challenges. Increasing our understanding of these processes is important because stress is known to contribute to the development of major depression and many other stress-related illnesses.

“A better understanding of how we respond and adapt to stressful events in our lives is crucial for the development of new treatments for stress-related disorders.” 

It goes on to say there are “no non-animal alternatives to the forced swim test” at present.

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