Scientists fight to stay anonymous under Act

January 28, 2005

Universities face a tough battle to protect the identities of researchers who use animals, following the first approaches under the new Freedom of Information Act.

Institutions across the country have started to receive "very specific" requests for previously undisclosed information about animal research since the Act came into force this month, The Times Higher can reveal.

Simon Festing, executive director of the Research Defence Society, which publicises the need for animal research and works with universities on the issue, said: "Some universities have raised concerns about the motivations of the people asking the questions. This will be an important time for setting precedents."

Universities are particularly anxious about the danger of exposing researchers after staff and contractors at Oxford University were attacked last year in an attempt to halt the building of an animal research facility.

Oxford had to abandon work on the building when contractors pulled out, but it has announced that work will begin again in February with a new contractor.

Speak, the umbrella animal-rights organisation set up to fight the building, plans a big demonstration outside the university this Saturday.

Its website says: "Every company planning to help build the new lab in South Parks Road will be exposed; they will not remain anonymous or invisible."

The Freedom of Information requests that universities are dealing with have been described as "very specific". Universities are concerned that the Act does not allow an institution or government department to refuse an application simply because it comes from a person with a criminal record for animal-rights activism.

Institutions are likely to try to employ specific exemptions, and Dr Festing said many of the early requests would serve as test cases.

Animal-rights activists are also believed to be seeking information from the Home Office, which licenses UK research using animals. The department has already placed nine summaries of animal research projects on its website.

Scientists said this week that although these are anonymised, it would be easy to deduce which scientists were involved.

Nancy Rothwell, MRC research professor at Manchester University, said: "I'm pretty sure I could identify some of the licence holders because their work is so specialised. I do not see a way of maintaining anonymity yet retaining a summary that has value."

But the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection has called the summaries insufficient and said the Government should publish the full licence documents.

Adolfo Sansolini, chief executive of the BUAV, said: "This is a smokescreen for further secrecy by the Government."

The Government is expected to announce plans to prevent economic sabotage by activists within the week. In addition, the High Court is expected to rule within days on the case of Newchurch guinea pig farm in Yoxall, East Staffordshire. It has sought an exclusion zone to protect the community, which has suffered a long campaign of intimidation by animal-rights extremists.

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