Extremists are winning war of words

July 9, 2004

If academics who are engaged in controversial research want to combat intimidation from fanatics, they need to get the public on their side, writes Anna Fazackerley.

Getting into the office in the morning has become a major trial for Chris Leaver, head of the plant sciences department at Oxford University. A controversial animal-housing facility is being erected opposite his building on the South Parks Road, and each morning and evening he has to fight his way past angry animal-rights protestors who shout at him and his staff, regardless of the fact that their department is more concerned with microbes than monkeys.

"One of my colleagues was walking past the other day and they called her a stuck-up bitch," he says. "It is very unpleasant. All the horn-blowing and loudspeakers disrupt my lectures and examinations." His staff have to pass through security gates to get to work, which, he says, makes it impossible for them to come in and work in the evenings and weekends as overloaded researchers need to do.

A spokesperson for Thames Valley Police is quick to emphasise that such protests - as long as they remain peaceful - are perfectly lawful. But other more violent behaviour experienced in Oxford in recent weeks, including staff being threatened in their homes and building contractors having their vehicles and equipment smashed, is not.

These experiences highlight how vulnerable universities are in the face of those who will go to any lengths to try to enforce their views. Yet unlike the weapons laboratories at Porton Down, an academic institution can never become a fortress.

Does this mean that academics are powerless to defend themselves against extremism?

Simon Festing, director of public dialogue at the Association of Medical Research Charities, argues that universities cannot just bury their heads in the sand and hope that animal-rights activism goes away. "Every university that conducts animal research should take a public stance," he says. Festing is no stranger to pressure groups: before joining the AMRC he worked for Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. And having worked on both sides he concludes that there must always be a response - staying quiet means giving in. "If you look at the poor response from the scientific community to genetic modification and animal research, a great deal of damage has been done," he says.

Festing is working on a campaign to persuade universities to have some sort of strategy for tackling the animal experimentation debate, beginning with a public statement about why they support the use of animals. But there is a long way to go. Oxford is the only institution to place a statement about its animals policy on its website. And you don't need much more than one hand to count the number of scientists talking publicly about their research using animals.

Tony Gilland, science and society director at the Institute of Ideas, blames institutional cowardice for the lack of researchers prepared to defend their stance publicly. "Academic organisations are very nervous about speaking out," he says. So when individual academics are threatened, they don't have the culture of support that makes a huge difference. They feel they've been hung out to dry."

Stuart Derbyshire, assistant professor of anaesthesiology and radiology at Pittsburgh University, says that while animal-rights extremism is not as big a problem in the US, it is clear that the culture is much more supportive of those who stand up to defend animal research. He recalls an incident three years ago when campaign group People for the Ethical use of Animals wrote to the dean of his university demanding his dismissal after he voiced objections to the 3Rs (the reduction, refinement and replacement of animal research).

"The dean called me up and asked what I thought he should say. I suggested he tell them to get stuffed, that censoring an academic for his or her views would be severely detrimental to the freedom of academics. He asked me to write the response and he signed it." He adds: "I doubt that would happen in the UK. I'm sure I would be politely asked to tone it down."

Gilland says the way in which scientists behave in debates about politically sensitive issues makes matters worse. "Academics tend to treat campaign groups as the gateholders of public opinion and they end up kowtowing to them," he says. "In media interviews, rather than saying what they really think, they try to moderate their views to placate them."

In short, he says, academics, universities and the Government are all running scared in the face of controversy, and each defence becomes little more than an apology.

One daunting obstacle can be the strength of the opposition. Lord Taverne, an outspoken supporter of both genetic modification technology and research using animals, explains: "Many pressure groups have brilliant and well-resourced press offices. They coordinate a torrent of responses to criticisms and take every opportunity to promote their arguments." This means that academics who get embroiled in these big debates inevitably need to sacrifice a considerable proportion of their time and energy.

Leaver is one of a small band of academics who have gone public on the benefits of GM. His campaign has had personal costs - he has had to go ex-directory in a bid to escape an often "very frightening" series of threats. But, at its peak, the debate also impacted on his other academic duties, swallowing about 20 per cent of his time. He notes that this sort of commitment is a major turn-off for younger academics, who are devoting most of their time to getting published and climbing the career ladder.

"Most of the people engaged in the public debate about GM are bald old men like me," he says. "That's a problem."

Yet where extremism is concerned, all of this is rather academic. It is generally accepted that no amount of debate will win round the minority of seriously hardcore activists. Leaver has instructed his staff never to engage with any protestor who is being threatening. "You can't afford to try," he says. Festing admits: "We wouldn't want to give scientists the false impression that if they engage in public debate the extremism will stop. It won't." Nonetheless, he is adamant that this does not let academics off the hook. "They must win the debate with the public about the need to use animals," he says.

The animals issue has certainly produced some of the most terrifying acts of what Lord Taverne defines as "terrorism" in British universities. As a full-time scientist at Oxford, Colin Blakemore, now chief executive of the Medical Research Council, endured years of death threats, including a bomb wrapped in HIV-infected needles addressed to his children. But some academics in the US are experiencing a technologically advanced form of harassment, from intelligent activists who have clearly thought hard about how to destroy someone's career.

Joseph Massad, professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, gets thousands of emails blocking his account each day, mostly automatic receipts of "horrifying racist messages" sent out in his name by Zionist activists. "They even email the White House," he says.

"They do it in such a way that you can't track them. The computer people here can filter emails, but they can't stop people sending messages out in your name."

Massad, who insists that he is neither racist nor anti-Semitic, is one of the supposedly unpatriotic academics who have been singled out by Campus Watch, a website run by a pro-Israel research and policy group. Those "exposed" by the site, which has a section encouraging students to report any professors with unorthodox views, have all been deluged with abuse as well as with spam emails.

Massad, who escaped to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London last year when the hostile attention got too much, is having to abandon his course on Palestinian and Israeli politics at Columbia. "The debate inside the class is wonderful, but the controversy outside is just too much," he says. Opponents have mobilised rightwing alumni, who have threatened to pull funding if he stays.

"This can be traumatising for younger academics," says Hamid Dabashi, another Columbia professor who has been targeted by Campus Watch. He adds:

"It is important to think about these sorts of issues if the UK universities might move towards the US system. Alumni can really wield an inordinate amount of power." However, after two years of threats and abuse, Dabashi remains determined that academics must always fight extremism. He insists: "It is not that our academic freedom is at risk, but that our civil and intellectual freedom is."

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