Supporters of research using animals are losing the "moral high ground" by engaging animal rights extremists in hyperbolic debate that fails to accept that some types of animal research are inadequate.
This is the message of one of the UK's staunchest defenders of animal research, Colin Blakemore, who gave a talk last week as the new chairman of the Research Defence Society - one of the most hardline organisations campaigning for the rights of scientists to use animals in research.
He said it was time to enter a "new phase" of "more sophisticated" debate about animal research. The discussion should recognise that the benefits of animal testing were uncertain, he said, adding that it should critically assess the validity of animal models and look at whether there was more scope to develop alternatives.
Professor Blakemore, the former chief executive of the Medical Research Council - claimed by some to have been unfairly overlooked for a knighthood in the New Year Honours because of his outspoken support for animal research - said: "This debate has become too polarised. We have to step back from this polarisation to regain the moral high ground."
He accused those opposed to the use of animals of employing "exaggerated, biased, unsubstantiated and inaccurate arguments", but he also turned the mirror on his own side. "Equally, supporters of animal research are inclined simply very frequently to dismiss moral objection," he said. "(They are) also too unwilling to admit the inadequacies of some aspects of animal research - the benefits are simplistically exaggerated in many cases."
Terry Huxtable, the chief executive for the Dr Hadwen Trust, an organisation with "anti-vivisectionist principles" that funds research into alternatives, said he was encouraged by the call for a more nuanced debate. "This is something new on the part of the RDS, which tends to be more kneejerk," he said.
Professor Blakemore became chairman of the RDS last December and was speaking at an event to mark its 100th anniversary.