Nancy Rothwell

January 27, 2006

One of the many benefits of working in an academic environment in the UK is the spirit of openness, the encouragement of debate and discussion, and the great tolerance, even encouragement, of diverse views.

Academics have not welcomed suggestions that we should attempt to "vet students" to avoid recruiting extremists who might conduct acts of terrorism, such as those seen in London last July. Apart from the impracticalities - I think a question about this at interview is not very likely to yield productive outcomes - universities are diverse communities welcoming students from across the world with many different beliefs and views. None of us would wish to do anything to encourage future acts of terrorism, but it is difficult to see any useful ways of preventing such activities without extreme censorship and limitation of freedom.

Interestingly, though, it is another form of terrorism that is probably having a greater impact on open debate in many universities: animal rights extremism. For more than a century, Britain has been known for its many active animal welfare and animal rights groups. A tiny handful of these have committed acts of terror and violence.

Many will remember the sustained campaign against Medical Research Council chief executive Colin Blakemore, the sad case in Bristol when a bomb missed its intended target but injured a baby in a pram nearby, and the TV coverage of groups of hooded protesters screaming abuse at those who work in institutions that undertake animal research.

But lately the level of terror and violence seems to have reached new heights and the targets have been wider, often involving people quite loosely associated with animal experiments, such as those providing services. Some of these have even claimed to be unaware of their links to animal research. The police, now with new powers of arrest or restraint, suggest that the latest wave of violence is perpetrated by a very small group of extremists. Various "infiltrations" indicate that the most violent groups are not that strongly committed to saving animals, but it is hard to know the truth about such organisations, or their threats to terrify, harm or, in some cases, kill those involved in research on animals.

Perhaps the most notable event in the news was the desecration of the grave of Gladys Hammond and the removal of her remains. She was the mother-in-law of Chris Hall, who, for many years, was harassed and abused because his family ran a farm in Staffordshire breeding guinea pigs for research. The farm was closed recently in the hope that the stolen remains would be returned, but this has not happened.

Threats, damage to property and physical attacks instil fear in scientists working on, or even vaguely linked to, research on animals and the institutes that undertake such research. Companies have tightened their security, while universities are nervous about any public comments on their research - understandably so, as no one wants to be the target of such violence to themselves and their families.

But hiding the facts about animal research and failing to enter into an open debate is likely to further damage the understanding of such work. It should not be the job of scientists to persuade anyone to support research on animals; their job is only to explain the facts and allow others to make up their minds. It is gratifying that a recent survey by the Financial Times indicated that many (but sadly not all) leading universities state on their websites that they use animals in research and explain why and how this is done, and how it is regulated.

Although the culture of fear is understandable, every institution that undertakes such research has an obligation to be honest and open.

Unfortunately, this extremism is also damaging to those who tirelessly fight for the welfare and protection of animals. While these groups can be viewed as a "thorn in the side" of medical research, their importance should not be underestimated. Animal welfare organisations that engage in open dialogue with their scientific counterparts and campaign for better conditions for all animals should be welcomed.

The fact that Britain has the strictest legislation and the highest standards of welfare in the world owes much to such groups. Their causes are harmed as much as those of the researchers by the acts of extremism perpetuated under the banner of animal rights. Whether on behalf of political or religious views or in the case of animal rights, violent acts by a few stifle the freedom of debate. Universities should be outspoken in their defence of openness and honesty, however challenging this may be.

Dame Nancy Rothwell is MRC research professor in the faculty of life sciences at Manchester University.

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