Forgo anonymity, scientists told

May 27, 2005

Academics experimenting on animals were urged this week to publish data openly - in effect waiving their anonymity.

In particular, journals that run articles on such research should print data about how many animals were used, the procedures involved and the welfare outcomes.

The recommendation came as part of a report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, The Ethics of Research Involving Animals , which was published this week.

The report calls for openness to promote a balanced and informed public debate. Although most scientists welcome such an approach, few involved in animal research will speak out publicly because of fear of intimidation and threats of violence from animal-rights extremists.

The report was written by an 18-member group led by Baroness Perry, chairwoman of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee. The group comprised scientists from academia and industry, representatives from groups opposed to animal research, a philosopher, a lawyer and a TV presenter.

The paper includes an overview of the case for and against animal research, the ethical implications and suggestions for how to proceed. The panel admitted that there was no consensus on all its recommendations, but every member condemned violence and intimidation by extremists and said that most research currently undertaken was acceptable.

They called for scientists to "take a proactive stance with regard to explaining their research, the reasons for conducting it, the actual implications for animals involved and the beneficial outcomes they intend for society".

Baroness Perry said that the panel recognised why academics who are involved in animal research are often reluctant to go public. She also said that it was important that researchers and animal rights activists not demonise each other.

Simon Festing, executive director of the Research Defence Society, said most researchers now accepted that greater openness was desirable despite the risks. "The truth is that keeping heads down doesn't work," he said.

He said many institutions carried statements about their animal research on their websites.

But Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre said fewer than 15 people would speak to the media on this issue. Many who agreed to talk were told by their universities to keep quiet. "But if animal research is of high quality, is well regulated and is making amazing discoveries, (institutions) should encourage scientists to speak out."

David Thomas, lawyer for the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, said he recognised there was a risk to researchers through being identified. But he said: "We can have an informed debate only if we have information. At the moment, it is always on the science community's terms, which is not good enough."


'We've everything to be proud of'

Roger Morris's wife forbade him to speak out about his research involving animals until his teenage sons had left home.

But the molecular neurobiologist from King's College London now feels that - despite receiving a threatening letter after his first, 20-second, TVinterview - he wants to explain what he is doing and why.

"We need to have intelligent public debate. We do have to have consensus from the population. Many of us scientists would, in principle, like to have open days in our animal houses.

"We have nothing to be afraid of and everything to be proud of. We have to sell our point - and equally we have to justify what we are doing," Professor Morris said.

"But the current climate of violence and extremism means that scientists can't openly discuss this issue.

"Universities can be very negative about our putting heads above the parapet. There are cases where people who speak up have had their knuckles rapped and told to keep their heads down."

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