The Government is urging universities to be on high alert for attacks by animal rights extremists as it emerged that Oxford University is prefabricating its new £18 million animal research facility on a secret site away from the city.
Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister, called a private meeting with vice-chancellors from key research universities this week to offer help to improve security to prevent activists targeting other institutions after Oxford.
The audacious move by Oxford, believed to have the support of senior ministers and the security services, signals the Government's determination not to allow extremists to hold universities to ransom over animal research.
The Oxford laboratory is already three storeys high. But work at the site was halted last July after extremists targeted the contractors in a campaign that included sending threatening letters to shareholders.
One senior Oxford insider said: "As I understand it, the building is being prefabricated off site."
Another high-level source close to Oxford said: "I have heard that it is being constructed outside Oxford - possibly outside the country. I think the building will happen. The Government is privately adamant that it cannot fail."
But the source added: "If anything, the problem for Oxford will come afterwards - when the building is up and running."
It is thought that once the prefabrication has been completed, a large number of construction workers will be brought in to erect the building quickly.
A source with close links to the Government said: "It seems that no one knows exactly what is going on, but I have heard that it will be impressive. We have been told that when construction starts again it will be big and exciting. They are putting together a military-style operation."
An Oxford representative said: "We cannot comment on any issue regarding the South Parks road site. Obviously there are great security issues involved."
Lord Sainsbury was due to meet vice-chancellors privately this Friday. He was expected to reassure them that the Government and the police were committed to protecting universities from attacks by animal rights extremists. But he was also likely to say that universities should seek help from the Government on legal or security issues now and not wait for threatening letters to arrive.
On the Government's recommendation, the Research Defence Society is appointing a senior person to co-ordinate the fight against animal rights extremism across British universities.
Simon Festing, director of the group said: "Lord Sainsbury is angry about the impact of the extremist campaigns at Oxford and Cambridge. He is determined that the Government will support universities on this."
Diana Garnham, chief executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities, said: "It is important for external funders to know that the vice-chancellors understand the issues and are working together to do what is necessary to protect their staff and to enable UK medical research to thrive."