Approach to the use of animals in research – NERC

To understand our changing world, and how it affects its ecosystems, our scientists employ a range of monitoring methods to gather evidence of impact, including impact on animals. By gathering such evidence, high quality environmental science can inform policy and future action.

While this work increasingly uses cutting-edge remote-sensing technologies, including robotics and satellites, in some cases our researchers carry out scientific procedures on living animals and do research that involves animal interactions.

Involving animals in research

There are occasions where we may fund research that involves animals. As such, we are signed up to the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) position statement on research involving animals.

As a public funder of research and innovation, UKRI has a responsibility to ensure that our activities and those we fund are aligned with UK legislation and other guiding principles on research and innovation involving animals.

For more information see UKRI’s position on animals in research and innovation.

Our responsibilities

The NERC responsible business statement commits us to research with integrity and an open and transparent approach to our business practices.

We take seriously our responsibility to be open and transparent about the research involving animals that we fund and conduct, and we encourage researchers to communicate with transparency on the animal use and interaction associated with their research.

Animal use in the UK

ASPA regulated research

NERC undertakes and funds a limited number of animal research activities covered by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA).

NERC is committed to full legal compliance with ASPA (where applicable) and the principles of the ‘3Rs’:

  • replacing animal research with alternatives
  • reducing the number of animals used
  • refining experiments to minimise harm and discomfort to the animals.

Full definitions of the 3Rs from the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement & Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs).

Where possible, the researchers we fund use non-animal alternative 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 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.

ASPA regulated research involving animals can only be undertaken in the UK when all three of the below licences 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’.

NERC will only fund research using animals (ASPA) 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
  • researchers have properly considered all options for the replacement, refinement or reduction of the animals in the experiment, the ‘3Rs’
  • researchers have demonstrated that they are using the correct animal model and the correct number of animals to make sure that the research is of the highest quality possible.

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

  • sub-threshold
  • mild
  • moderate
  • severe
  • non-recovery.

Description of these classifications can be found in the guidance on the operation of ASPA.

NERC directly undertakes and funds a small amount of ASPA regulated research involving animals in the UK. This research is classed as ‘sub threshold’ to ‘moderate’. Further information on this research can be found on this page in ‘Funding methods’ and ‘NERC-funded research centres’.

Statistics relating to scientific procedures performed on living animals are provided in the annual reports of the Animals in Science Regulation Unit.

Non ASPA regulated research

NERC undertakes and funds a number of activities that involve or may impact upon animals in the UK which are not captured by ASPA, for example, behavioural observation studies of animals and non-invasive wildlife surveys.

NERC expects all researchers it funds to apply the principles of the 3Rs where there is any intended or potential interaction with animals.

When planning wildlife research and field studies, researchers should give due consideration to the NC3R guidance on wildlife research.

Additional NC3R guidance is also found within ‘Responsibility in the use of animals in bioscience research: Expectations of the major research council and charitable funding bodies’.

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 the financial year 2021 to 2022, two out of 368 competitive NERC-funded research grants awarded involved the use of animals licensed under ASPA.

The projects are at Swansea University and the University of Dundee. Both universities are committed to transparency on their use of animals in research and publish information on their websites to support this commitment:

NERC awarded a number of student research grants in the financial year 2021 to 2022 which involved animal interaction. NERC is working to enhance our reporting systems to include student grant data in our statistics on ASPA-licensed research involving animals in future.

Data is drawn from the Joint Electronic Submissions (Je-S) funding application system.


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 seals annually. This activity is captured by ASPA requirements. The unit’s research is directed at understanding the causes and effects of changes in seal numbers and distribution. This work helps to inform policymaking decisions and the conservation management of these important top predators.

Research involving animals at the University of St Andrews.

NERC-funded research centres

Two NERC-funded research centres conduct a small number of research procedures which involve the use of animals:

  • British Antarctic Survey (BAS)
  • UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UK CEH).

There is one current ASPA licensable long term research project at UK CEH.

This involves blood sampling and feather sampling of North Sea seabirds. This is classed as a ‘mild’ severity procedure and provides valuable data on seabird 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 BAS 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 policymakers 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 (CCAMLR).

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.

Understanding our data

NERC annually reviews its investments which involve work on, or interaction with, animals. This review informs internal reporting against the NERC responsible business statement and the content presented on this site.

Working with our partners

NERC is working with our UKRI partners to improve data quality, transparency and openness on where we interact with animals, why we do so, and the impact.

UKRI guidance and information on the use of animals in research.

Last updated: 9 October 2023

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