Don't be cowed over vital work that saves lives

March 3, 2006

Those who back animal research have a moral duty to speak up, says 16-year-old Pro-Test organiser Laurie Pycroft

Animal research has been seen as a guilty secret for a while now. There is a steady drip-feed of demonstrations and "undercover videos"

from the campaigners who oppose it, but little more than a deafening silence from those on the other side of the debate. Hopefully, the Pro-Test demonstration in Oxford last Saturday marks the beginning of a movement in which the pendulum starts to swing the other way.

But why did it take so long for this to happen? Obviously, the universities and scientists involved in animal research support it or else they would not do it. Yet, so far, only a few academics such as Tipu Aziz and John Stein have had the courage of their convictions to make the public case for animal research.

And they have done so almost entirely unsupported by their colleagues and departments. The Oxford animal research facility under construction is a case in point. Since Oxford University is building the thing, it is probably fair to infer that its leaders are in favour of it. So why has none of them said so? Regarding potential risk, it seems likely that the act of constructing the research facility will enrage animal rights terrorists far more than explaining why it is a good idea. The attitude seems to be that animal research is something to be ashamed of.

Animal research is a prerequisite for almost all modern medicine, and it is necessary for advances to continue. This much is essentially undisputed within the scientific community. But when hardly anyone is willing to come forward to make that case, that is not what people see. Instead, people see shadowy, arrogant academics who are too embarrassed about what they do to explain why. It is only by coming out of the woodwork and engaging with the issues that the public can be made aware of the realities of animal research today, the tight legislation governing it and the extent to which suffering is minimised.

In this country we have, thankfully, almost unlimited rights to freedom of speech and expression. But if we don't exercise those rights, we might as well not have them. When construction of Cambridge University's primate lab was abandoned, it was a huge blow for science. More important, it was a huge blow for those with Parkinson's disease.

Oxford is now the next battleground in this particular debate. But what is at stake here is much more important than one particular research facility.

The debate needs to be reclaimed from an increasingly vocal and violent minority.

The antis have every right to stage peaceful demonstrations to get their message across. At the same time, the silent majority on the other side of the debate have a moral responsibility to stand up and express their views.

If we genuinely believe that animal research saves lives, we need to tell people.

We need to have those arguments and debates and begin to roll back the vast amount of misinformation put out in the public forum by those opposed to animal research. Not only do we owe it to the few individuals who are already doing so to offer our unconditional support, we also owe it to everyone with Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, cancer and Aids.

The public supports animal research and, on Saturday, we showed just that.

Participants on our last-minute student march outnumbered, by more than four to one, the protesters in a long-planned demonstration organised by full-time campaigners on the other side. On Saturday, for the first time anywhere, people took to the streets to show support for and solidarity with the scientific research community.

But it is essential that the momentum not be allowed to peter out. The Research Defence Society does amazing work in trying to ensure that the case for scientific progress is made. However, it needs a wider base of support to be more effective.

If the arguments for animal research are not being made openly and unapologetically by those engaged in such crucial research, then those arguments might as well not exist.

The refusal of academics and institutions to speak out has made them look guilty and embarrassed. There is nothing to be guilty or embarrassed about.

Those in this field should be proud of what they do and should stand up and explain why it is vital.

Their institutions should offer them full support. And anyone who has a loved one suffering from a currently incurable disease should also join them and make their feelings known.

Laurie Pycroft is the founder of the campaign group Pro-Test.

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