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DZF-Project: Jan van der Valk / David Dewhurst

 
The European resource centre for alternatives in education (eurca)


Dr. Jan van der Valk and Dr. David Dewhurst

Eurca, Dept. Animals, Science and Scociety, Fac. Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht University, 3508 TD Utrecht, The Netherlands

Eurca(at)vet.uu.nl / http://www.eurca.org

Keywords: alternatives, replacement, higher education,

Begin and End of the Project: 2000-2003 (still on-going)

Background and Aim

Background: Over recent years, there have been considerable developments in alternatives to animal experiments in teaching the bio-medical sciences. This is largely a result of increased ethical awareness, improved quality of alternative models, and national and international regulations that prohibit the use of experimental animals when alternatives are available. Here, alternatives are defined as animal replacement and reduction models, and techniques that reduce animal suffering when used for the purposes of education and training.

Both technical and moral motivations underlie the search for alternatives and there is a body of evidence to indicate that in many instances alternatives can improve the quality of both education and research. Teachers, scientists, and society at large recognise a moral obligation to reduce animal suffering wherever possible. Throughout Europe, animal ethics committees (AEC) have been established to advise (and sometimes legislate) whether it is possible to replace a proposed animal experiment with an alternative.

However, despite a widespread availability of alternatives, such data as does exist suggests that animal use for educational purposes still continues at a low but still significant level. It should be stressed that 'official' figures undoubtedly grossly underestimate the actual number of animals used2. One possible reason for this is a lack of effective dissemination of information about alternatives. Teachers require assistance in their search for reliable and appropriate alternatives. They need to know about the availability of the models and in particular their applicability in the proposed experimenti. For information on the availability of alternatives in education, databases (like AVAR, NORINA) are available and several information centres (like FRAME, NCA, CAAT, ECVAM) can be consulted.

However, the applicability of an alternative for a specific purpose can only really be obtained by viewing and getting hands-on experience with the model. Teachers of science are also influenced by data, which demonstrates efficacy of an alternative in a 'real' teaching situation (possibly a different university) and the opportunity to discuss with developers or end-users how a particular alternative may be tailored to suit specific 'local' needs.

Unfortunately, although alternatives are widely available, there are several reasons for the slow decrease of animal numbers in educationii:

  1. some teachers are resistant to change and need to be convinced of the benefits of using alternatives;
  2. integration of an alternative into a course will usually involve an initial investment of time and money;
  3. information about potential alternatives (in a form that will influence science teachers) is not widely disseminated;
  4. the quality of the material available varies considerably and the information in a database, while useful at one level, often does not indicate quality; and
  5. there may be financial, technical and other factors which restrict the use of alternativesiii.
The ECVAM workshop on alternatives in educationii made two recommendations that would overcome the above-mentioned obstacles. First, establish a Resource Centre along the lines of the already established British Pharmacological Society (BPS) Resource Centre, which is coordinated by Dr. David Dewhurst at the University of Edinburgh. The BPS Resource Centre centres on a database of technology-based learning materials in pharmacology and, more importantly, has assembled a collection of materials from a large number of sources. The Resource Centre travels to major pharmacological meetings as a service unit to disseminate information about these materials to pharmacology teachers. The great strength of this approach is that teachers can get 'hands-on' experience of the learning materials, evaluate them, and discuss with the Resource Centre staff how specific materials have been integrated into courses and implemented in different universities.

Second, the Resource Centre will improve the information exchange about alternatives by linking to existing databases such as NORINA - a comprehensive resource for educational alternatives (http:/oslovet.veths.no/Norina/). The information in the database will be expanded to include independent reviews and evaluations, published data on educational effectiveness, examples of support materials, links to known users (e-mail list) and where possible multimedia demonstrations of alternatives on the Internet. In the some cases, it may be possible to provide downloadable versions of for immediate use in the classroom. 

Aim: It is proposed to establish a European Resource Centre for Alternatives (ERCA) in line with the recommendations of ECVAM workshop 25ii. The aims of ERCA will be to:

  1. Provide a mechanism for effective dissemination of useful information about alternatives to using animals in education;
  2. Actively encourage use of alternatives by attendance at international conferences of science teachers. These aims will be achieved by:
    a) Establishing a collection of alternatives and making these available to teachers.
    b) Taking the Resource Centre to relevant scientific meetings in Europe where it would function as a drop-in advice centre for teachers.
    c) Carrying out site visits to demonstrate good practice in the use of alternatives.
    d) Setting up an Internet website with an expanded information database on alternatives, demonstration versions of alternatives, evaluations, links to users.
Methods and Results

The Resource Centre is at the centre of the projects outreach activities.  It comprises a large range (currently >50) of mostly technology-based alternatives and some models/mannequins for demonstration. Suitability of models for the Resource Centre is assessed by the EURCA team against agreed selection criteria: they must support the concept of the 3Rs; be suitable for HE; be interactive; be available for evaluation/or be recommended by experts in the field.

In the first year, money was set aside for the acquisition of alternatives for the Resource Centre. Developers or distributors of alternatives in higher education were actively approached to contribute products and associated product information to the Resource Centre. 

The Resource Centre (laptop, display stand and posters) is taken to relevant scientific meetings (currently >20) both in Europe and outside Europe (when it is judged to be useful) where it functions as a drop-in advice centre for teachers. Some site visits to Netherlands Universities have also been carried out to demonstrate good practice in the use of alternatives. 

Articles about the activities of  EURCA have been published in journals, as abstracts to meetings and in several newsletters. A biannual EURCA Newsletter keeps reviewers, the Advisory Board, and users of the website up to date on EURCA’s activities and developments., One of the aims is to encourage them to become more involved with EURCA and stimulate others in the field (e.g. colleagues or students) to take more of an interest in using alternatives in higher education.

Conclusions and Relevance for 3R

EURCA has been extremely successful in meeting it’s original aims and objectives. The project has been very active in both outreach (taking the EURCA Resource Centre to international conferences) and dissemination activities (conference presentations and publications), and developing an information-rich website with independent, expert peer-reviews of most of the alternatives listed. The range of activities has been expanded beyond the initial plans particularly in developing the network of national advocates across Europe. 

The plans for the future are to continue the activities described above, to continue to build the team of national advocates and to use the expertise and skills of that team to develop an exciting and extensive co-operative research and development programme.

[1] Janusch, A. et all. (1997) Current status and future developments of databases on alternative methods. ECVAM workshop report 25, ATLA 25, 411-422

[1] Van der Valk, J, et all. (1999) Alternatives to the use of animals in higher education. ECVAM workshop report 33, ATLA 27, 39-52

[1] Balcombe, J.P. (1997) Alternatives in education: overcoming barriers to acceptance. In Animal Alternatives, Welfare and Ethics (eds. L.F.M. van Zutphen and M. Balls) pp. 441-444. Amsterdam: Elsevier