The 3Rs Explained

The 3Rs Explained

Facilities that use animals for research, testing and teaching often refer to the 3R's. Here we explain exactly what they mean.

The 3Rs are a set of guiding principles widely promoted by the animal experimentation industry. 


The 3 Rs are: 

  1. The Refinement of scientific techniques;
  2. The Reduction in the number of animals used;
  3. The Replacement of animal procedures with non-animal procedures.


The problems with the 3Rs

"It [the 3Rs] is an alleged ethical policy for the protection of animals –  it is not a science policy and entirely ignores current scientific knowledge." — Patients Campaigning for Cures.


As the quote above suggests, there are many problems with the 3Rs:

  • They are not enforced: Even though the Animal Welfare Act mentions the 3Rs, they are not enforced and the Act instead only "promote efforts" of the 3Rs. They are nothing more than a recommended guideline that "must be considered." Groups and individuals using animals for science will often state that they "promote" and "encourage" the 3Rs, but we are yet to hear of anyone in NZ enforcing them.
  • They aren't designed to end animal experimentation: Even if the 3Rs were enforced, they wouldn't be effective in genuinely ending animal experimentation. This is because they only critique animal experimentation on ethical grounds. The 3Rs completely ignore the many scientific issues involved in using animal models to predict the human response.
  • They promote the misconception that animal experimentation is necessary: In reality, the 3Rs promote the concept that animal experimentation is justified as long as it is performed as "humanely" as possible. This only helps perpetuate the misconception that animal experimentation is a necessary evil.  
  • They encourage improving a broken model: The principles of refinement and reduction only encourage researchers to "improve" and "perfect" animal experiments. No matter how well planned an experiment using animals is, it will never create viable results that can accurately be translated reliably to humans. Whether you use ten mice or 10,000 mice, the sample size will not be able to predict the human response reliably. 
  • They don't encourage the development of more non-animal based and alternative methods: The third R, replacement, only promotes the replacement of animals if there is an "alternative" available. 
  • They aren't genuine: For example, many viable alternative methods to using live animals for teaching purposes already exist. But this doesn't prevent animals from bein used this way.


Where the 3 Rs are promoted

The 3Rs are mentioned and promoted in the Animal Welfare Act, the Good Practice Guide (by the Ministry of Primary Industries and the National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee) and the Ethical Code of Conduct of some institutes. 

Animal Ethics Committees (groups of people who approve and monitor the use of animals in science) are also meant to take the 3Rs into account when they are considering proposals for the use of animals in research, testing or teaching. For example, these committees are required to consider whether a proposal for a project has adequately assessed the suitability of using non-animal-based and alternative methods.


A better way

We would rather see a set of guidelines that are motived by ethics and scientific evidence, and are enforced rather than simply promoted. We agree with 1R — the full replacement of animal experimentation and harmful use of animals in science!