NIH’s mission is to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability. To accomplish this mission, NIH has an ethical and legal obligation to ensure the welfare of, and minimize risks for, humans and other animals who are involved in NIH-funded research.
All animals used in federally funded research are protected by laws, regulations, and policies to ensure the smallest possible number are used to produce reliable results and the greatest commitment to their care in the context of the research. This includes ensuring their social, emotional, psychological, and physical care are considered throughout the study. Complying with these protections is a collaborative effort between NIH, federally supported scientists, and research institutions. The rules governing and protecting animal care include:
- Health Research Extension Act
- U.S. Government Principles for the Utilization and Care of Vertebrate Animals Used in Testing, Research, and Training
- Animal Welfare Act
- Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals
- Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals
- American Veterinary Medical Association Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals
NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW) oversees all NIH-supported research activities that involve live vertebrate animals. Prior to receiving funding, institutions must negotiate an Animal Welfare Assurance with OLAW, which is a document that outlines the program of humane animal care and use. Institutions must also meet the standards of the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals (The Guide) , a resource that assists institutions in caring for and using animals in ways judged to be scientifically, technically, and humanely appropriate. After funding, OLAW monitors NIH-funded institutions’ compliance with animal welfare laws and policies and investigates allegations concerning animal welfare and appropriate animal care.
Federally supported scientists are accountable for the best care of research animals from the earliest stages of planning until the project’s completion. Scientists must be trained in animal care and use, including training or instruction in research or testing methods that minimize the number of animals required to obtain valid results and minimize animal pain and distress.
Through the NIH peer review process, reviewers rigorously evaluate the written descriptions in grant applications before a funding decision is made. All research projects are carefully evaluated during peer review to determine if any method could effectively be used in place of animals. If no other option exists, applicants must determine and justify the minimum number of animals and the appropriate animal model required to do the research.
NIH peer reviewers are experts from institutions around the world (not employed by NIH) who understand the scientific value of a particular animal model for studying the biological processes of a health condition and its treatments. They judge a researcher’s idea based on its scientific and technical merit, so that the most meritorious research projects are considered for NIH funding.
Locally, research activities involving animals are reviewed by an institution’s oversight committee, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). Comprised of local scientists, non-scientists, community members, and veterinarians to provide different perspectives representative of the general community, IACUCs review all animal use and may make recommendations or require modifications that optimize the animals’ welfare in the context of research before approving an activity. The NIH will not fund research by domestic grant recipients that use animals if the IACUC has not given its approval to the proposed study.
IACUCs also closely monitor the research and ensure that it is conducted in accordance with all requirements of the PHS Policy and adheres to the IACUC’s animal care requirements. These committees have the authority to suspend any activities involving animals if the research is not in compliance with federal requirements or fails to adhere to what the IACUC has approved. NIH-funded institutions must report promptly to OLAW if the IACUC finds any violation of the PHS Policy. OLAW then considers these reports and requires the institution to make appropriate corrections and to prevent further violations.
OLAW also develops and supports educational materials to assist research institutions, principal investigators, IACUCs, veterinarians, and laboratory animal care staff to improve animal welfare. This includes workshops such as the annual Symposium on the reduction, refinement, and replacement (3Rs) of animal models , webinars and podcasts , and the Interagency Collaborative Animal Research Education Project , in collaboration with other federal agencies committed to high standards of animal welfare in biomedical research.
Working together with the research institutions and scientists it funds, NIH upholds its commitment to the safety and care of animals so that researchers may continue to understand the biological processes of health and disease and to develop treatments that improve quality of life for people.