Animal rights request raises concern, reports Anna Fazackerley
Major British universities face being named on a "hit list" of primate research centres, sparking fears for the safety of staff if animal-rights extremists widen their focus from Oxford University.
The Times Higher has seen a Freedom of Information Act request sent to six universities asking for details about experiments involving primates.
The letter, sent by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, caused panic among the institutions, which fear that the non-violent organisation will publish a list of target universities on the web that could easily fall into the wrong hands.
Until now, universities have been careful to keep their primate facilities a secret, for fear of attack.
The Home Office has a list of institutions doing this work but it is strictly classified and not shared even with the Department of Trade and Industry, which is responsible for science.
Simon Festing, executive director of the Research Defence Society, which campaigns on behalf of animal research, said: "That information is definitely not publicly available.
"The fear is that this will be a hit list. If they identify the roughly ten institutions which do primate research and put it online, all it needs is some nutcase locally to follow a researcher home and carry out an attack.
"At the moment, animal-rights extremists in the UK are sending hoax letter bombs. Actual injuries have been minimal but it is the fear that is the issue. These universities are scared for their researchers."
Oxford, which is building a new animal research facility on South Parks Road, has been the focus of protest for many months, with some of its contractors being threatened. The extremist Animal Liberation Front said the £20 million laboratory should be the focus for all activism.
Construction is now carried out behind high hoardings. The builders wear balaclavas and are housed in a secret location.
But the RDS warned the Government that these primate research requests might mark the beginning of a new campaign outside Oxford.
A leading figure in animal research at one of the universities approached by the BUAV said: "The spectre of what is going on at Oxford is something no one wants to see repeated at their institution.
"We are all worried. There is a delicate line between trying to be open about important medical research and trying to protect your staff."
He added that experiments involving primates were publicised in scientific papers.
But he said: "There is a major difference between letting on in advance what you are going to do, and explaining what you have done retrospectively. Activists have shown they want to prevent research happening."
Nancy Rothwell, Medical Research Council research professor at Manchester University and chair of the RDS, said: "I think a list on the web would be dangerous.
"We are pleased to have the more moderate animal-rights groups, but the problem is that the extremists have made everyone frightened. The situation at Oxford is horrible."
The six universities targeted by the BUAV have been advised to neither confirm nor deny whether they undertake primate research.
The MRC, which funds some research on monkeys, has also received an Fo... request for details of its work in this area, prompting fears that funders would be targeted alongside institutions.
Sean Gifford, campaigns manager at the BUAV, declined to comment on the Fo... requests, saying the organisation had not yet decided what to do with the information.
He said: "In general, these experiments go on behind closed and locked doors. We have a long campaign to ban primate research completely. Primates are our next of kin. It doesn't take a huge leap of imagination to see that they suffer enormously in British labs."
He added: "We absolutely condemn any act of violence and intimidation towards technicians or researchers. We want to win hearts and minds and not put bricks through windows."
THE FoI REQUEST
"Please explain how many primates were held under licences and certificates under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 by or at your university, as provided to the Home Office in the last two returns of annual statistics, breaking down the figure by species.
"Please provide a summary of the research primates that are currently used at the university, again by species.
"We are contacting a number of universities in the UK to collate an accurate and up-to-date picture of primate experimentation at UK universities.
"Published work by researchers at your institution suggests that primates are being used there.
"We think it is in the public interest that more information is given about the nature of such use, so that a more complete picture can be obtained about overall primate use in the UK than is currently available."
Activism target quits work
A researcher from the University of California has given up primate research after a long campaign of threats against him and his children and the attempted firebombing of a colleague.
Dario Ringach, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, e-mailed animal-rights groups in August to say that he had decided to stop doing research on monkeys. He wrote: "You win... Please don't bother my family any more."
UK researchers fear that primate research is becoming a global cause cel bre for violent extremists.
In June, the Animal Liberation Front admitted attempting to firebomb the home of Lynn Fairbanks, a primate researcher at UCLA. The Molotov cocktail was mistakenly delivered to her elderly neighbour, but failed to explode.
Professor Ringach and his colleagues were subjected to several years of intimidation after their names and addresses were published by the UCLA Primate Freedom Project. They endured threatening phone calls and e-mails, demonstrations outside their homes and damaging leaflets circulated to neighbours.
An editorial in the journal Nature Neuroscience reports that targets of similar protests elsewhere have had abuse painted on their homes or cars, doorbells rung repeatedly, windows smashed and doors broken down while family members were in the house. Animal-rights websites post the names of scientists' spouses and children, along with their ages and schools.
UCLA denounced campaigns against its staff as terrorism. It said it would not stop doing primate research.
It says in statement: "Research involving laboratory animals has served as a vital cornerstone in the development of lifesaving procedures and medicines, from vaccines to open-heart surgery, organ transplantation to mental health treatment."