Bristol Uni students storm Beacon House in protest against ‘forced swim’ animal research

‘It’s now time for the university to step up and do the responsible thing’

Bristol students staged a sit-in at Beacon House, marking a fresh round of student action against the University of Bristol’s use of the highly controversial “forced swim test”.

The forced swim test involves placing rats or mice in a long cylinder of water from which there is no escape. It is used to evaluate the antidepressant efficacy of new compounds. 

A group of 10 students blockaded the reception of Beacon House between 9am and 11am on Thursday, holding banners with slogans such as “rats are tormented at the University of Bristol”. The protests are the latest in a nearly two-year-old dispute between animal welfare activists and the university.

In 2021, students voted at an SU event to oppose the test, with a number of student societies organising to campaign against it. 

A university spokesperson told The Bristol Tab it “keeps up to date” with advances in welfare in animal research and has “robust and thorough ethical review processes in place for every project”.

Animal rights organisation PETA has also been vocal on the issue, setting up billboards in 2021 bearing the slogan: “Shame on University of Bristol. Ban the forced swim test now. The ‘science’ doesn’t hold water”. They also released an open letter to the Vice-Chancellor in 2022, which was endorsed by celebrity actors Will Poulter and Mark Rylance

According to protester Jesse Prince, Thursday’s sit-in was sparked by the university’s decision to continue the test for the forthcoming year, as it reportedly recently renewed its licence to test on “a total of 4,000 rodents for a further five years”.  

Expressing their frustration at the lack of movement on the issue, Jesse told The Bristol Tab: “We’re past the point of voting and petitions. We passed a vote over a year ago. It’s now time for the university to step up and do the responsible thing as an institution of respectable research. 

“In 2021, our student body voted at an SU democratic event to lobby the uni to ban the test. Instead, there are plans to run a PR campaign with staff and students in order to increase support for animal testing. Banning it was not even debated.” 

Jesse is referring to discussions held at a recent Senate meeting about a “Student Engagement Plan” that would involve producing and distributing material that highlighted “the value of animal research”.

However, the university argues that calling this a “PR Campaign” is “incorrect and misleading”. It says the plan would instead provide students with information that would allow them to form their own opinions on the issue.

What actually is the forced swim test and why is it controversial? 

The forced swim test (FST) is a behavioural test which is used in neuropharmacological research to study the impact of potential antidepressants on behavioural despair by exposing animals to stress. 

Rodents are placed in a small, confined space from which they cannot escape, and the time it takes for the animal to stop swimming is measured.

Floating is thought to be an indicator of despair and is used to model depression of humans. The animals are given various antidepressants, and if the animal swims for longer than others that have not been given the drug, then the antidepressant can progress to further testing.  

However, it has been criticised for having “poor accuracy”, with scientists at the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) also claiming that it is “no longer considered a model of depression” and concluding that it cannot predict the efficacy of new antidepressants. 

PETA argues that floating is not a sign of despair, as some claim, but rather a positive indicator of learning, saving energy, and adapting to a new environment”, going on to describe the test as both “useless” and “cruel”.  

Whilst progress at Bristol University has so far been limited, PETA claims that its actions have led to the discontinuation of the test at King’s College London and the University of Adelaide, as well as at 14 companies. 

A University of Bristol spokesperson said: “We recognise there are differing views about the use of animals in research, including some concerns around whether it is ethical.”

“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.”

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