An attack on five Oxford scientists has put the controversy over animal research back in the spotlight. Phil Baty reports
The Animal Liberation Front is keen to make its presence felt by the new Government. So last week, five high-profile Oxford scientists were targeted in coordinated attacks. The university's professor of physiology, Colin Blakemore, whose experiments on the eyes of kittens led to a $100,000 Alcon Research Institute Prize last year, had his home vandalised. Peter John Morris, director of the Oxford Transplantation Centre, whose vivisection work helped win him a knighthood for services to medicine, had his car covered in paint stripper and the tyres slashed.
Also attacked were Alan Cowey, director of the Medical Research Council research centre into brain behaviour at Oxford, John Hopewell, director of the radio biology group at Oxford, and David Gaffan, a senior researcher at the university's department of experimental psychology.
The ALF will keep making such attacks on scientists, says its spokesman Robin Webb, until it achieves its goal - a total ban on vivisection and on the use of animals in research. "We do not have the right to enslave and torture other species just because we have the power to do so," he says. "The vivisectors are the real extremists and terrorists, who burn and maim animals for profit. History will forgive us for working outside the law, just as it forgave the suffragettes, who regularly damaged property."
The ideological debate about animal research is well rehearsed and highly emotional. The protagonists on both sides are deeply entrenched. The Research Defence Society, set up by researchers to present the case for animal experiments, is adamant: laboratory tests on animals help save human lives. The RDS was established in 1908 - "that's how long the debate has been raging," says its deputy director Barbara Davis, herself a target of the animal liberation activists.
But intransigence is going nowhere, and both researchers and the moderate animal welfare groups are beginning to search for some middle ground. "We want to abolish vivisection, but we're realistic about achieving it," says Les Ward, of Advocates for Animals, formerly the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Vivisection. "We can't end it overnight. The public is concerned about vivisection - but it is also concerned about disease. We just want to end the trench warfare."
The battle centres on the detail of the statutory regulations enshrined in the Animal Scientific Procedures Act 1986, which made provision for licensing and inspection of research with animals. All animal research is regulated by the Home Office, which issues licences, and has a team of 21 inspectors to ensure suffering is kept to a minimum.
The key coup for the animal libertarians, albeit only a small concession, was the introduction of the concept of cost-benefit analysis into the 1986 legislation. Before it can grant a licence the Home Office must weigh the cost of a research project to the animals involved against the likely benefit of the research to humans. "If someone suggested that they would need to kill 300 primates for tests on cosmetics, we'd expect the Home Office to say no," says Les Ward, who alongside Colin Blakemore, is a member of the Boyd Group, set up to search for middle ground between the two sides. "But if a researcher wanted to use 250 rats and thought he could cure cancer, clearly the Home Office would judge that the benefits might outweigh the suffering to the animals."
The cost-benefit analysis is wracked with controversy. Some scientists think it blocks a lot of useful scientific development. "It is the nature of science that people go ahead with a hunch," says Boyd Group founder Kenneth Boyd. "But under the act people have got to be able to justify why their science is on the right tracks. This can lead to potentially good lines of research being stopped. Knowledge is not like a two-dimensional jigsaw with a few bits missing. It's a multidimensional jigsaw and we don't know which direction it's going in. A scientist could be following up a line that might not obviously tie up with other lines, but might eventually result in a key discovery."
But while scientists claim the rules can be too rigid, the anti-vivisectionists believe the Home Office lacks the will to be thorough. "The whole of the 1986 act is based on trust," says Les Ward. "No doubt many of the scientists are very responsible, but many are not doing it right. There is a heck of a lot of bad practice in the scientific community that has to be weeded out. There are countless documented cases where animals are abused, or the wrong anaesthetic is used and the animals are put through agony."
Another stumbling block is the radically different interpretations of "benefit" in the cost-benefit debate. "A lot of the decisions are very subjective," says Maggy Jennings, head of the research animal department at the RSPCA. "The law requires that the interests of industry must be taken into account, so animal experiments carried out simply to make money are often allowed. There is also the notion of 'furthering knowledge' to be considered, so the experiments do not always have to lead to a major medical benefit."
While the scientists can wheel out a string of major medical discoveries to justify vivisection - polio vaccines, anaesthetics - and can argue that "millions of lives have been saved", the anti-vivisectionists are beginning to turn research against the researchers, sometimes with some credibility.
The animal libertarians' argument is simple: benefits to humans are restricted by the fact that animals are not humans. Their rallying cry is thalidomide, the anti-morning sickness drug, which had no adverse effects on pregnant lab animals, but left human babies deformed.
Angela Walder was a Home Office licence-holding vivisectionist herself, at the charity Cancer Research, before she joined the animal liberation movement. "The more I look into it, the more I'm convinced that animals are an appalling model as far as humans are concerned," she says. "Artificially induced cancer cells in a mouse have little in common with naturally occurring cancer in a human," she says. "I'm amazed that people can simply wander off and play with lab animals to their heart's content. Dogs can be killed in the pursuit of an anti-snoring drug. People are being given the go-ahead to experiment on animals, but they're often being turned down for grants to study humans. Most modern diseases are lifestyle related."
The common ground where researchers on both sides can work, almost harmoniously, together, is in the pursuit of alternatives, and attempts to use fewer than the 2.8 million animals (70 per cent rats and mice) experimented on each year. Organisations like the Fund for the Replacement of Animals and the Human Research Trust are leading the way. Once again, there's a rub. "One would always use an alternative where it is possible," says one of the scientists targeted by the ALF in last week's attacks, who asked not to be named. "But cells in a Petri dish are very different from a functioning kidney, brain or lung."
At least there is an attempt to talk. Even the Animal Liberation Front, which continues to fight both within and outside the law, is prepared to sit down round a table with its enemies, says Robin Webb. "But there are many who wouldn't sit down with me," he adds. Given last week's Oxford attacks, one can understand why. Nevertheless, early next month Colin Blakemore, speaking at the British Association's annual festival of science of which he is this year's president, will again stress that "scientists who use animals must recognise their duty to respond to those who criticise such research as cruel, misleading and morally wrong. The risk of exposure is considerable, but the consequence of silence is worse." This despite the fact that Professor Blakemore has reason to believe that his life is now under threat, not just his property.