Universities that are forthright about their research need not fear the public, says Simon Festing
The use of animals has played a hugely important role in the world-leading biomedical research done in the UK's universities. Work that seeks to cure heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Parkinson's disease and that brought us penicillin, the meningitis and polio vaccines and blood transfusions, for example, has all depended on using animals. But it remains controversial.
Unfortunately, open debate about animal research has been held back by a tiny minority of animal rights extremists. These fanatics have launched campaigns of harassment and intimidation against researchers and universities, making the life of those who work with animals very difficult.
The understandable fear of being targeted by extremists has encouraged many scientists and institutions to keep their heads down for a long time. This has sadly re-enforced the animal rights argument that there must be something to hide.
But times are changing. In the past few years the Government has made enormous progress in tackling animal rights extremism. There are tough new laws to crack down on harassment and criminal damage, and a hugely improved police operation has succeeded in bringing many individuals to justice. The extremists are much weakened by all this. As a result, the risk for any institution that is not already a target is considerably lower than it used to be. It would be wrong to underplay the problem of animal rights extremism, but it is definitely time to take a fresh look at the risks.
In response to this welcome government commitment, previously reticent universities are recognising that the climate is right to start explaining the importance of animal research. Many have become more open in their communications about this issue, and are now supporting their academics and research in this vital part of UK science.
The changes have been widespread. More than 150 institutions now state their ethical approach to animal research on their websites. Many universities encourage and support their academics to speak out in defence of their life's work. A few years ago, press officers would strip out all mentions of animals from press releases and other research stories. But now more and more of them see the point of including such information.
This is not about running a "campaign", or "advertising" that a university uses animals. It is about showing that animal research is a normal part of biomedical research, albeit with important ethical issues.
The recent change in attitudes did not happen overnight. The passion of some pioneering scientists has undoubtedly steered universities towards more open policies. But there is more to be done.
Universities need consistent policies to reflect the rapidly changing debate. Sometimes caution is right. For example, the entirely unnecessary attempt by an anti-vivisection group to force universities to divulge sensitive information about primate research is a hazard because of the extremists' obsession with these animals.
But in response to a different freedom of information request one leading university recently summarised the types of research conducted there. To the surprise of its administrators, a letter of praise was received in return. Apparently, other institutions had not responded. Their approach is unnecessary. Most research universities are already identified as using animals. Attempts at total secrecy achieve nothing.
Greater openness about animal research will be of enormous benefit to universities. Surveys show that 90 per cent of the public accept the need for animal research, provided that suffering is reduced as much as possible, that the research is for medical purposes and that there is no alternative. Universities can enhance their reputation by explaining how their work contributes to medical and scientific advances while complying with the general public's views.
A major obstacle to informed debate is a lack of information about what goes on in research centres. Some people have seen animal rights videos and believe animals are routinely mistreated. Universities have started to address this by inviting small but select groups of people to visit their laboratories. Despite practical difficulties, an MP or trusted local journalist could be given access under carefully controlled conditions.
Events such as the Pro-Test rallies in Oxford have shown the level of public support for well-regulated and humanely conducted animal research.
Through carefully planned communication we can win this debate. Now is the time to seize the moment.
Simon Festing is executive director of the Research Defence Society.