Animal researchers brave the circle of friends and sceptics

April 15, 2005

The scientists looked more than a little uncomfortable as they stood in a ring of strangers and came up with adjectives to describe their feelings. This isn't how an ordinary day in the lab starts.

Last Wednesday, a peculiar assortment of people met in London to hammer out an issue many British universities are afraid to talk about - animal research.

As the workshop began, scientists found themselves standing alongside playwrights, campaigners from both sides of the animal experimentation debate and 15-year-old schoolchildren.

The children were "intrigued" and "interested", but others were "anxious" - and that was before they had to move around the room holding hands with people they'd never met and asking them about their pets.

The point of the workshop, which was funded by the Association of Medical Research Charities, was to brainstorm ideas that the playwrights - members of the YMCA's theatre company Y-Touring - can turn into a stage performance that will make people really think. The play will tour schools and should eventually reach the Edinburgh Festival.

Nigel Townsend, Y-Touring's artistic director, told the room - "There is a climate of fear surrounding animal research. But we believe a healthy democratic society is one where people can make their own minds up."

The debate began in earnest. The playwrights and teenagers sat in rows as speaker after speaker took to the stage. It was like animal-research ping-pong, with statistics and emotional arguments volleyed back and forth.

Some speakers wouldn't stop when their time was up.

A former scientist who gives talks in schools on the need for animal research announced he was going to show a video of cats in a university animal house. The teenagers sat forward eagerly in their seats. One playwright started to panic: "I don't want to see this."

In fact, the cats were rolling about happily in their cage. The playwright looked close to tears.

Both sides claimed to have science behind them. One speaker reeled off a list of people with PhDs who believe animal experiments tell us nothing.

Others, including a young scientist in trendy low-slung trousers the teenagers might have worn, said scientists were in no doubt that animal research was necessary - nasty, maybe, but necessary.

As the morning wore on, one schoolchild admitted: "We're blinded by science. Who do we believe?" A playwright, heading out of the door in search of coffee, agreed: "My head hurts."

Information overload it might have been - but at least this unusual group of people were talking.

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