Science fears attacks will rise with Act

September 10, 2004

Universities may find it impossible to keep the identity of researchers working on animals hidden from extremists when freedom of information laws come into effect next year, experts warned this week.

There are fears that disclosing information about animal experiments could lead to more attacks from animal-rights extremists by revealing researchers who have never gone public about their work on animals before.

The Home Office has for the first time already given details of ten animal research project licences after a request from an anti-vivisection group, The Times Higher can reveal.

Simon Festing, director of public dialogue at the Association of Medical Research Charities, said: "Universities have got to get used to the fact that people will seek information on animal research, and they will not be able to keep everything secret."

He added: "We don't know what the scale of the problem will be. I can see that a university where an active campaign is taking place could receive hundreds of requests, and many would be quite specific."

From January, anyone can seek information about animal research from a university or the Home Office, which records every animal experiment project licence granted in this country. Under the Freedom of Information Act, no institution or government department may refuse a request simply because it comes from someone with a criminal record for animal-rights activism.

Philip Wright, director of science and technology at the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry, said: "It is a balance. We want to be more open, but we don't want to provide opportunities for malicious people to carry out... attacks."

The spectre of researchers being exposed will deepen concerns in universities, which have watched with alarm the increasing number of attacks on staff at Oxford University in recent months aimed at halting the building of a primate research laboratory.

The documents released by the Home Office, which have been seen by The Times Higher , do not name any individuals or state where they work.

Scientists have argued, however, that they provide enough information to pinpoint who they refer to with relative ease.

Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, said: "It would be very difficult to give sufficient detail and not give away the identity of the researcher. The particular research interest and the technique are bound to be giveaways."

The Home Office has said it will consult scientists before disclosing details of their work.

At the British Association Festival of Science at Exeter University this week, Professor Blakemore said that the number of animal experiments in the UK had dropped by 50 per cent in the past 30 years. Home Office figures show that 2.79 million experiments took place in 2003, an increase of 2.2 per cent over 2002. "I expect it's because of an increase in the use of mice and particularly genetically engineered mice," Professor Blakemore said.

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