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Roles and responsibilities of animal ethics committees

The primary responsibility of an animal ethics committee (AEC) is to ensure, on behalf of the institution, that all activities relating to the care and use of animals are conducted in compliance with the Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes (known as the scientific use code). The 2 main roles of an AEC are to ethically review proposals to use animals for scientific purposes and to monitor animal care and use.

The institution that has established each AEC must ensure that the AEC is provided with the necessary resources to fulfil its terms of reference and operate in accordance with the code. The institution must also provide for the orientation and education of AEC members to enable them to meet their responsibilities.

Where more than 1 organisation (registrant) and/or AEC are involved in collaborative projects, the organisations and their AECs must together ensure that all use complies with the relevant legislation and the scientific use code.

Organisations and their AECs must establish a formal agreement between the institutions and must include the requirements outlined in clause 2.6.2 of the scientific use code.

Ethically reviewing proposals and animal facility management procedures

An AEC ethically reviews proposals by judging whether the proposal demonstrates the principles in clause 1.1 of the scientific use code, and must balance whether the potential effects on the wellbeing of the animals involved is justified by the potential benefits. The AEC must be satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to support a case that the proposed use is justified. An essential component of this review involves ensuring the 3Rs (replacement, reduction and refinement) are applied at all stages of animal care and use.

Only those activities that conform to all relevant sections of the code and legislation and are ethically acceptable may be approved.

All new proposals and renewal of existing projects must be assessed at quorate meetings of the AEC.

Members of AECs participate in the following activities to assess proposals and procedures.

Preparing for meetings

  • Review proposals to be assessed at the meeting
  • Prepare any questions or discussion points

Depending on the number and complexity of the proposals, it may take 1 or more days to complete these preparations.

Attending meetings

  • Attend meetings of the AEC (meeting frequency is determined by the amount of AEC business)
  • Give early notice of inability to attend a meeting, as the meeting must be rescheduled if a quorum cannot be reached

Considering project/activity proposals

  • Ensure animal use complies with the requirements of the code
  • Determine whether the proposal is ethically acceptable, demonstrates the governing principles of the scientific use code (see clauses 1.1 to 1.4) and whether the potential effects on the wellbeing of animals involved is justified by the potential benefits.

Deciding on project/activity proposals

  • The AEC must base its decisions on the information it receives from the applicant from the documentation and/or direct discussions and may use other relevant information
  • Decisions should be prompt and based on a thorough, fair and inclusive process of discussion and deliberation by AEC members
  • Decisions should be made on the basis of consensus and only proceed to a majority decision after all other alternatives have been exhausted
  • AEC members with a conflict of interest must withdraw from the decision making process and decisions must be made by a quorate AEC membership
  • The AEC can decide to approve with or without conditions, approve subject to amendment, defer subject to modification or not approve the project/activity
  • In determining the duration of approval, AECs should take into account how long the project is funded, any milestones/stages and any formal agreements between the institution and funding bodies

Monitoring animal use

Monitoring activities undertaken by an AEC include:

  • inspecting animal housing and laboratories on a regular basis
  • examining records maintained by investigators, teachers and animal facility managers
  • taking appropriate action in response to any unexpected, adverse events
  • inspecting at an early stage any project likely to cause animals harm, including pain or distress (include as a condition of approval)
  • ensuring activities that are not compliant with the code cease immediately and remedial action is taken
  • delegating authority to suitably qualified people to monitor animal care and use, particularly in remote sites
  • reviewing the annual reports and completion reports submitted to the AEC by investigators and teachers.

Confidentiality

AEC members may be asked to assess information that is commercial 'in confidence'. The institution will require members to sign a confidentiality agreement on joining the committee. Members must use the information provided only for the purpose of carrying out their responsibilities as AEC members.