Scare tactics silence science

February 6, 2004

Animal-rights extremists have made a whole generation of scientists too afraid to speak about their research. But they are being encouraged to fight back. Anna Fazackerley reports.

Plans for a prize to reward young scientists who talk to the public about animal experiments may fall flat because junior researchers are scared about the potential risk of speaking out and are under pressure from their universities to remain quiet.

Nancy Rothwell, the winner of last year's Pfizer award for science innovation, decided to give a large part of her £50,000 prize to the young researcher who had done most to engage the public and the media on animal research issues. But she has yet to find a suitable candidate under the age of 40.

Professor Rothwell, who conducts research in physiology at Manchester University, has done much to advance the debate. She told The THES : "There are not that many senior scientists speaking out - you can count them on one hand. But as you progress in your career you do gain some confidence, not only about harassment but about talking to the media."

Mark Matfield, executive director of the Research Defence Society, said young researchers were failing to speak out in other countries, too, but stressed that it was extremely important to involve them in the debate.

He said: "First of all you wouldn't get so many grey men speaking, which is a lousy stereotype. Second, they will be the leading scientists of the future."

Experts agree that one of the key barriers for young scientists is a fear of being attacked either verbally or physically by animal-rights activists.

Dr Matfield said: "A lot of them have young families, and they are very nervous." But he added: "I think that nervousness is misplaced."

He argued that animal-rights extremists did not necessarily focus on those who spoke publicly. He said that many scientists who had commented on their animal research once or twice had not been targeted.

Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, suffered years of attacks by animal-rights extremists as a neuroscientist at Oxford University - once, a bomb wrapped in HIV-infected needles was sent to his children.

Professor Blakemore started to speak out about his research on animals only after he had been targeted.

The Coalition for Medical Progress, a cross-sector group set up to encourage communication about animal research, hopes that more scientists will join together to speak out so that extremists cannot single out individuals.

Philip Connolly, the coalition's director, said recent positive media coverage should help to spur scientists into action.

He said: "It is waking a sleeping giant. There are far more of us than there are of them."

But the finger has also been pointed at universities for failing to provide leadership in this area.

The Association of Medical Research Charities encourages its members to place statements on their websites explaining why animal research is important.

But few universities have done this, and the organisation is calling for a change of culture in academia.

Simon Festing, an expert on such issues at the AMRC, said that he often spoke to researchers who were willing to discuss the merits of animal research but were being blocked by their university. This was because institutions either lacked a strategy for dealing with this or were concerned about security, he said.

Professor Blakemore agreed this was often the case, but he said it was difficult to blame universities for being so defensive.

"A head of department has a responsibility to allow staff and students in and out of their building without anything happening to them. The security implications are huge," he said.

Security - and more specifically the cost of providing it - was a key factor in last week's decision by Cambridge University to abandon its plans to build a cutting-edge primate research centre. Professor Blakemore said this would also be an issue for individual departments.

"The cost implications are absolutely huge. To add really effective security arrangements to the average university department costs millions in capital and could cost millions a year to maintain," he said.

"We need a change of culture. That has to be produced by confidence that engagement will not interfere with the important parts of academic life," he added.

Ted Griffiths, director of the Biomedical Research Education Trusts, which sends scientists into schools to talk about their animal experiments, said universities could learn from industry in this area.

Most of the charity's speakers come from pharmaceutical companies, which actively encourage young researchers to engage in public dialogue about animals and science.

He said: "You're talking about a company doing as many as 50 or 60 talks a year. But it has senior management support, so it goes ahead."

The leading direct-action groups
operating in the UK

Animal Liberation Front
The ALF, which is based on small cells of people operating autonomously, liberates animals from laboratories, factory farms and so on. Its guidelines say it adheres to non-violent direct action and liberations and takes precautions against harming any animals, including humans. But it commits itself to inflicting "economic damage to those who profit from the misery and exploitation of animals".

Animal Rights Militia
This group supports the ALF but believes that its direct-action strategies do not go far enough. The militia has carried out hoax poisonings and targeted an academic who experimented on animals in the 1990s. His house was splashed with paint and the word "scum" was daubed on it.

The Justice Department
This group, which became active in 1993, supports the ALF's non-violence stance, but questions what is legal and illegal, violent and non-violent, in the context of "what works". It was involved in sending letter bombs to companies during a campaign against live animal exports in the 1990s.

Source: ALF website

'Going into schools was daunting at first'

Elizabeth (false name) is a veterinary surgeon at the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca who regularly visits schools to discuss her work with animals.

"I enjoy it now," she said. "But initially it was quite daunting. I suppose one of the main reasons people don't do it is that no one forces them to, and it's frightening at first."

Elizabeth also speaks to interested local groups about animal experimentation. A patient group will visit AstraZeneca's animal unit later this year.

"All our visitors have a positive reaction," she said. "Even the people who don't agree with animal testing go away believing we look after the animals."

She admitted that engaging in dialogue with the public can take time, but she said it did not interfere with her career.

"Obviously AstraZeneca has a commitment to the programme, but people's day jobs come first. We look for volunteers, and we have a pool of people who can go whenever they are available."

EU law

Animal-rights lobby groups are working to influence the revision of the European directive that regulates animal research, The THES has learnt.

The draft directive, which is intended to make the regulation of animal experiments across Europe more uniform, may not have its first reading until 2005. But animal-rights groups are already lobbying members of the European Parliament for a total ban on primate research.

Simon Festing of the Association of Medical Research Charities said: "MEPs are often confused about what constitutes scientific advice. Lobby groups often couch their arguments in scientific terms."

Research organisations including the Biosciences Research Federation are discussing how to get the views of the science community heard. Dr Festing said: "I feel quite confident. We will lobby on this. We are just waiting for the right time."

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