Secrecy only serves to fuel our suspicion

May 11, 2007

By suppressing data on their primate research, universities are stifling essential debate, argues Michele Thew

Open, rigorous debate is the lifeblood of academic endeavour. British universities are the proud guardians of a cherished tradition under which research is widely shared and a healthy discussion spawning a range of views is thereby made possible.

Or are they? Not when it comes to animal experiments. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection recently asked a number of universities for a summary of their current primate research and how many primates they had used in the past two years - pretty anodyne information by any standards. We were not interested in who the researchers were or commercially sensitive information. We simply wanted to create an accurate picture for informed debate.

Newcastle and St Andrews universities promptly provided the information, but several institutions refused. In an apparently co-ordinated approach, those universities - Oxford, Cambridge, King's College London, University College London, Manchester and Nottingham - relied on the exemption in Section 38 of the Fo... Act, which allows public authorities to withhold information if its disclosure would represent a risk to the health and safety of individuals.

Buav accepts that intimidating behaviour by a tiny minority of activists has caused genuine anxiety, and we unreservedly condemn such behaviour. But the scale of the problem has been grossly exaggerated by the media and by parts of the research community, no doubt for their own ends. We welcomed the recent news from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry that there was not a single violent incident last year and abusive messages took a sharp drop. Echoing Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous words, the vast majority of researchers have little to fear but fear itself.

This is not to say that the Section 38 exemption is never available to animal research institutions: it can be used, for example, to protect the identity of researchers if this is not already known. But it cannot be used automatically to trump any request for information. The exemption has to arise from the release of the particular information in question. A general risk in the area in question is not sufficient.

Crucially, researchers at each of the universities voluntarily publish articles about some of their primate research. They put their names to the articles and summarise what they do to primates and for what purpose.

According to the PubMed database, Oxford researchers have published more than 80 such articles since 2001, Cambridge 34 and UCL 21. How, then, can it sensibly be argued that the information requested by Buav would add to any risk that already exists?

King's also relies on the exemption that allows information to be withheld if it is shortly to be publicly available. The university does not, it seems, see the contradiction between relying at one and the same time on forthcoming publication and a claim that disclosure would present a risk.

We see the stonewalling by the universities as part of a cynical attempt by some researchers to control the public debate about animal experiments.

Oxford told us that the only information it was prepared to divulge was whatever it put on its website, rather missing the point that as a public authority it is obliged to disclose information under the Fo... Act, subject to proper application of the exemptions. This philosophy of censorship enables Oxford to peddle arrant nonsense that most animals do not really suffer in their experiments.

Equally breathtaking is the assumption by some universities on the role of arbiters of how much information is needed for public discourse.

Faced with this stonewalling, organisations such as Buav feel they have no option but to undertake undercover investigations to expose the truth about animal experiments. One such investigation revealed a cavalier attitude towards the welfare of brain-damaged marmosets at Cambridge and is the subject of a judicial review to be heard in July. In the meantime, complaints against the six universities have been lodged with the Information Commissioner.

The irony is that secrecy and the perception that researchers are trying to censor information inevitably breeds suspicion and fuels militancy. While universities, and indeed the Government, continue to suppress information about animal experiments, the public will assume the worst.

An informed, reasoned debate is not possible unless the facts are available. But perhaps the last thing some animal researchers want is an informed debate.

Michele Thew is chief executive of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection.

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