Most people in Britain accept that it is sometimes necessary to use animals in scientific and medical research. Most of those who disagree obey the law when they voice their opinions. But the few activists who are willing to commit crimes to make their point have gained influence over massive decisions and investments, including the University of Cambridge's recent abandonment of a planned animal research centre.
We report this week the paradox that the private sector is taking the lead in defending animal research while universities, which are meant to defend intellectual freedom, are holding back. Their reluctance is understandable. Drug companies have the staff and the money to implement security. Academics work in open institutions that are not designed to be defended.
But animal rights violence threatens intellectual life in a way that demands a response, and not only from the departments and individuals most directly affected. The people who carry out the violent acts are unlikely to change their minds about their right to break the law. They have decided that it exists only to defend the indefensible. But they can be isolated and their ability to recruit new support can be minimised.
The UK has some of the world's most restrictive legislation on the use of animals in research. There is little to be gained by strengthening it, although its implementation has sometimes been imperfect and not all science that uses animals is excellent. The industry may be right to demand more thorough laws to protect animal researchers. However, the only way to marginalise this small minority of activists is to build public support, as well as taking legal action against the perpetrators of such violence.