Professor Rotmans: This is the first time I’ve seen the government instigate a transition.

How does Professor Jan Rotmans of the Dutch Research Institute For Transitions (DRIFT) look at the transition to animal-free innovation? And what is the best way to approach the transition game? We asked him this after he had outlined the current state of the transition to animal-free innovation and explored promising transition paths with the TPI network this spring.

Portretfoto Jan Rotmans, hoogleraar DRIFT
Image: ©Jan Rotmans
Jan Rotmans

“I have not heard anyone mention it at a birthday party yet.”

Rotmans first heard about the transition to animal-free innovation when talking to policymakers. That intrigued him. “There is no broad public awareness yet of the issue of animal-free innovation, but it appears there is awareness among politicians and policymakers. I have not heard anyone mention this issue at a birthday party yet!”

Generally speaking, fundamental changes are instigated by groups in society, not by politics. “The transitions around food, agriculture, energy and climate have been driven by decades of pressure from groups in society that have raised these issues. Usually, politics is the last party get involved with an issue. The issue of animal-free innovation gives the lie to this conventional situation.”

However, political focus is not necessarily a harbinger of success, as social pressure is also needed. “It may help when politicians from across the spectrum – left, centre and right – have the same views on promoting animal-free innovation. That can raise latent awareness in society. The current pandemic also offers opportunities, as it has exposed systemic weaknesses. For example, it has shown how long it takes to test the safety of a vaccine.”

Animal-free research is really about better science

According to Rotmans, one thing that has certainly become clear is that animal-free innovation should be seen in a broader context. Such as in the context of the current health care system. “Today, our standard approach is only to intervene when people develop health complaints. We are not helping people to get fit again, only less ill. Perhaps in 50 years’ time, health care will not focus on treating illness, but on keeping people fit.” Consequently, Rotmans believes that we should see animal-free innovation in the context of better science and thus better health care.

“Animal experiments that are insufficiently predictive of the effects in humans are inadequate for complex diseases. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, for example, are diseases you cannot research using animal studies alone. The transition to human-based test models will provide us with better science, a different set of ethics and a different paradigm.”

“Make clear what the purpose is of animal-free innovation: improving people’s health!”

But does the term animal-free innovation properly describe what this change in direction entails? Yes and no, says Rotmans: “It’s a term the general public understands, which is a good thing. However, it’s not a helpful term for professionals who depend on animal studies to be able to do their work, and whose support you need to achieve the transition. Because science needs to become more open, more multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary – transdisciplinary even, using knowledge from outside of science. That is another broad context that needs to be considered.”

To achieve real change, we will need to identify the logic behind the wish to find alternatives to animal studies. The logic is: The more humane the method, the better the result will match the needs of humans. “Everything we do in this transition needs to fit into that logic. That way, it becomes clear what the ultimate goal is: improving people’s health requires better science, better measuring and the use of more data. All of this is to provide people with safe treatments and to enable them to live and work as long as possible in good health and safe conditions.”

The time is ripe

"There are moments when the time is ripe for change, when many people suddenly clearly understand and feel the need for it. Just look at issues like factory farming, energy and the climate.” “There is now more tension in society than ever before. We have seen big demonstrations by farmers, the building sector, teachers and anti-racism activists in The Hague. That is creating fertile ground for transitions.” The closer you get to the heart of the matter in a transition, the stronger the opposition becomes, and that is actually a good sign, because it is about power and vested interests.

According to Rotmans, the pandemic crisis in particular has triggered a great sense of urgency in society. “The pandemic crisis has parallels with the climate crisis, but the big difference is that the pandemic affects everyone now and can be directly life-threatening. Everyone knows someone who got ill or was impacted economically. That means the change happens 10 times faster.”

Dialogue about risks

In crises, there are no quick solutions, says Rotmans. But at the same time, actions have been taken at an unprecedented speed during the pandemic. “A real sense of fear has arisen, and that says a lot about the current regime.” It takes at least one year to develop a vaccine.

But we cannot be cautious in times of crises, says Rotmans. “That is why we are now seeing a public debate around social distancing, about what increased risks we are willing to accept in return for the freedom that comes with scrapping the 1.5-metre social distancing rules. We could have a similar public debate about the risks and benefits of alternatives to animal studies.”

“That debate could start in parliament, but professionals who are knowledgeable about the matters involved should definitely also share their views – preferably a group of scientists recognised as authorities in their field, like Robbert Dijkgraaf, for example. And leading public figures from the fields of philosophy and ethics could also be called upon to get involved. Gather leaders from the bottom up, to raise more awareness among a wider public.”

Real change takes two generations

So, perhaps the time is ripe. Awareness about the transition to animal-free innovation is beginning to grow among an ever wider group. The view is gaining ground that science based on acquiring knowledge for humans is the method of the future, to provide personalised care and for safety assessments of effects on humans that are difficult to measure in animals. However, we still have some way to go.

“We still have 80 percent of the work ahead of us”, Rotmans warns. “Don’t forget that we need to build a completely new infrastructure for human testing and scale back the infrastructure for animal testing. Achieving real change takes two generations. That applies to all transitions. First, there is a run-up to greater awareness, then a vanguard changes its behaviour, leading to fierce conflict in institutions and a lot of resistance, and then the majority adopt the change, followed by the rearguard.”

“You can look at each hub as a crucible. Together, we can light an unstoppable flame that can spark a passionate movement.”

Embrace resistance

“The crucible of the transition is the place where it meets the greatest resistance. The fiercer the resistance, the better. Resistance is a good sign and should be addressed in a subtle and serious manner,” Rotmans recommends. “Rather than barging your way through, you should facilitate the discussion between vanguards of the change and people who resist it. Discuss their fears, for instance about the interests at stake. It is logical to protect your own interests, but you should also look for the common greater good. Take one step at a time. This kind of evolutionary movement creates the space for change.”

“In addition, this shouldn’t be organised by the government. The government can garner support in the Hague, but otherwise it should mainly operate strategically. For example, by identifying and connecting hubs throughout the country. These hubs should preferably differ in subject matter and have a wide range of stakeholders. Regional initiatives, for example, like TPI Utrecht, the Bio Science Park in Leiden and Pivot Park in Oss.”

“So the government should foster the debate about this transition, but policymakers in the Hague should not be in the ‘cockpit’.”