Leading universities are developing more forthright policies on public discussion of their animal research amid pressure from the police to face up to animal-rights extremists.
Some institutions remain strongly opposed to staff talking openly about this work in view of the continuing violent animal-rights campaign against Oxford University's new animal research facility. But some key research universities are showing a new determination not to be silenced.
Assistant Chief Constable Anton Setchell, the national co-ordinator for domestic extremism work who developed the strategy for dealing with animal-rights extremism, last week held a private meeting with senior animal research licence holders. He urged universities to speak out in defence of animal experimentation.
Noting that animal-rights attacks were co-ordinated by a hardcore of about 20 extremists, he said that if everyone working on animal research spoke out, it would be beyond the group's capabilities to target them all.
Work at Oxford's animal facility was halted last July after extremists targeted the contractors, smashed up property and sent threatening letters to shareholders.
A spokeswoman for Oxford, which has taken the unprecedented step of allowing local television cameras into its existing animal laboratories, said that the university would support any researcher who wanted to communicate on this issue provided he or she had discussed it with the head of department. She added: "Heads of department have to ensure that other people in the department who do not necessarily want to speak out are not being inadvertently identified."
Sources at King's College London said that its senior management team met this week to debate whether the college could pursue a more active stance on discussing its animal research.
Mike Spyer, vice-provost for biomedicine at University College London, confirmed that his university was working to train "a good number" of UCL staff to take part in the debate. He said: "It is difficult to put one's head above the parapet, but we need to communicate with the public in order to get their support."
But one researcher confirmed last week that secrecy at their university was so intense that only six people knew that animal research even took place there.
A spokesperson for Science Minister Lord Sainsbury said this week: "Key events are coming up that will show the academic community the Government's commitment to this."