Animals in Research

Research involving animals

To understand our changing world, and how it affects its ecosystems, our scientists employ a huge range of monitoring methods to understand animal behaviours, increasingly making use of cutting-edge technologies including robotics and satellites. In some cases, to understand the dynamic between an animal and its environment our researchers must undertake scientific procedures on living animals.

As human activities often impact animals, we want to know the nature of these activities and the magnitude and importance of their impact. By gathering such evidence, high quality environmental science can inform policy and future action.

Our research

At NERC, we take seriously our responsibility to be open and transparent about the animal research that we fund and conduct, and we encourage researchers to communicate their research.


Funding research involving animals

NERC will only fund research using animals where:

  • no viable non-animal alternatives exist
  • the research is fully compliant with current Home Office legislation
  • the research is approved by a local ethics committee
  • the research has been successfully independently peer-reviewed
  • the researchers have properly considered all the replacement, refinement or reduction of the animals in the experiment (read more about the 3Rs)
  • the researchers have demonstrated that they are using the correct animal model and the statistically correct number of animals to make sure that the research is of the highest quality possible.

Animal Use in the UK - Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA)

NERC is committed to full legal compliance with ASPA and the principles of the 3Rs: replacing animal research with alternatives, reducing the number of animals used and refining experiments to minimise harm and discomfort to the animals. Where possible, the researchers we fund use non-animal methods. These include land surveys, satellite imaging, computer simulations and statistical studies.

The term ‘procedure’ refers to any act that may cause an animal a level of pain, suffering or distress equivalent to or greater than the introduction of a hypodermic needle.

In the UK, all such procedures carried out on any living vertebrate or cephalopod, such as the octopus, are regulated under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA). This includes regulations on how the animals are housed, their environment, welfare, care, and health. Work on dead specimens such as beached whales and activities like bird ringing fall below this severity and are regulated differently.

Research involving animals can only be undertaken in the UK when all three of the below licenses have been granted:

  • Research can only take place in research institutes or companies which have appropriate animal accommodation and veterinary facilities, and have been granted an establishment licence.
  • Research can only be done as part of an approved research or testing programme that has been given a project licence.
  • Research can only be carried out by people with sufficient training, skills and experience as shown in their personal licence.

The severity of harm on an animal as the result of a procedure under ‘ASPA’ licencing can be classified as follows:

  • Sub-threshold
  • Mild
  • Moderate
  • Severe
  • Non-recovery

Description of these classifications can be found here.

NERC directly undertakes and funds a small amount of research involving animals in the UK, this research is classed as ‘sub threshold’ to ‘moderate’. Further information on this research can be found below. 

An annual report providing statistics relating to scientific procedures performed on living animals is produced by the Home Office Animals in Science Regulation Unit. These reports can be accessed here.

Animal Use Internationally 

The Concordat on Openness in Animal Research is applicable to operations within the UK. NERC funds and undertakes research internationally, including within the Polar Regions.  Where we interact with animals as part of our international activities we work to the principles outlined within the ASPA and the concordat.







Funding methods

We fund research in a few different ways, through our centres, through grants to institutions and through competitive grants to researchers.


Competitive grants

In 2018-2019, two out of 414 competitive NERC-funded research grants involved the use of animals licensed under the act (as reported in proposals). These projects were at the University of Glasgow and the University of Nottingham.  Both universities are committed to transparency on their use of animals in research and publish information on their websites to support this commitment.



We fund the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St Andrews to fulfil our legal requirement to supply advice to the UK Government on matters relating to the management of seals in the UK and its sovereign waters. For this purpose, SMRU handles a few hundred individuals annually. Their research is directed at understanding the causes and effects of changes in seal numbers and distribution, work that helps to inform policy-making decisions and the conservation management of these important top predators. Read more on the university’s webpages.



NERC Centres and Strategic Partners

One NERC Centre, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), and one NERC Strategic Partner, the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), conduct a small number of research procedures which involve the use of animals.

At CEH, one ASPA licensable research procedure is being undertaken. This involves blood sampling and feather sampling of North Sea seabirds. This is classed as a ‘mild’ severity procedure and provides valuable data on sea bird population health.

Research activity involving animals undertaken by BAS occurs overseas, for example during polar research in Signy, South Georgia, or on board research vessels.

These procedures are not governed by ASPA because they do not take place in the UK. However, BAS ensures that these procedures match as closely as possible to requirements as they would in the UK and each is reviewed by the British Antarctic Survey Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Body.


Case Study: Penguin counting on Signy Island

British Antarctic Survey conducts long term monitoring of changes in Antarctic ecosystems to understand the underlying drivers and processes on the animals that live there. Monitoring breeding populations of birds, seals and whales is an important way to provide scientists, conservationists and policy makers with indicators of wider changes in the ecosystem.

The whole island count of penguins at Signy Island in the South Orkney Islands, forms an important part of the data that feeds into the body that manages Southern Ocean ecosystems and fisheries, the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

As a refinement to the methods, the most recent population survey was conducted by an experienced drone pilot, who captured high resolution pictures of the penguin colonies, providing highly accurate counts at the same time as reducing the risk of disturbance to nesting birds.

Drone picture of Adélie penguin colony at Signy Island












Figure. Drone picture of Adélie penguin colony at Signy Island.