Scientists are increasingly being required to engage with the public. This is an unwelcome message to many who use animals in research. Frances Balkwill and Sophia Petit-Zeman reflect.
They need to dispel misconceptions, argues Frances Balkwill
The booklet Where do Medicines Come From ? is now available in doctors' waiting rooms and pharmacies throughout the UK. Developed by Understanding Animal Research, with support from the Wellcome Trust, it shows how medicines are developed, and the central role played by animals.
Health directly affects us all, and this booklet will reach the many people who rely, in one way or another, on medicines. Most who read it will be unaware of the 12-15 years needed to develop a new medicine, and that animals are an essential part of this. Opening the eyes of the public to the truth might be seen as bold by some, but there is no evidence of a backlash arising from such communications; on the contrary, they can help build a more supportive environment.
Below the radar
We live in very different times to those of a decade ago, when animal rights extremism was at its height and researchers feared discussing their work publicly. The main extremists are now in jail and their long sentences should deter others from following a similar course.
Meanwhile, public support for medical research and the benefits it brings is high. Despite this benign environment, many in the scientific community still fear public hostility.
Scientists, their supporting staff and managers still remember the stories of harassment and intimidation. Many prefer to keep ‘below the radar’ rather than risk their safety or reputation. But activists ideologically opposed to animal experimentation already know which scientists use animals; peer-reviewed papers and conference presentations are monitored by campaign groups.
Keeping silent means closing the door to genuine public discussion. We all benefit from scientific advances, and most of us are supportive of well-planned, humane research. We should all have the opportunity to understand why animals are used and how well they are cared for.
Value of openness
Scientists do not need to advocate or advertise their use of animals, and openness does not necessarily mean high profile media campaigns. Many institutions already have website position statements on animal research, present animal studies in press releases, and host visits to their animal facilities. Institutional commitment to these public engagement practices is key to breaking down barriers and changing perceptions.
Communication of research issues allows people across society to connect with science and technology. It may not always lead to public support, but it does build trust and confidence, which can never be achieved without this transparency. Research funders now require that public engagement forms a key aspect of scientists’ work, and this provides opportunities to communicate on all issues. Scientists are often surprised that open discussion of animal research is met with interest, and the negative reactions they anticipated are rare.
Openness might not be for everyone. There are still a few organisations and individuals who have good reason to believe that engagement is risky. But communication by the scientific community is the only way to ensure that the agenda for discussion of animal research is not set by those who oppose it. As Nature said recently , ‘There is no excuse for institutions that house animal research ─ including most research universities ─ not to have vigorous and well-defined programmes to explain what goes on within their walls.’
Since 2006, Understanding Animal Research has been helping research organisations develop strategies for communicating animal research. These include advice and resources for researchers and support staff, and a successful school speaker programme involving hundreds of researchers throughout the UK. We have seen greater transparency give rise to greater understanding and the development of public trust. Talking about how and why we use animals in research is the only way that the misconceptions can be dispelled.
But Sophie Petit-Zeman points towards support
The 2010 Ipsos MORI report on public attitudes towards animal experimentation reveals, overall, an ongoing high level of acceptance . While such a climate might be expected to encourage animal researchers to speak out about their work, the reluctance of some to do so has been understandable.
In June 1990, two veterinary surgeons involved in animal research had their cars blown up. The event marked a disturbing increase in violence used by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF).
In 1999 an estimated 1,200 animal rights extremist attacks caused terror to victims and at least £2.6m of damage to property. Much of this was carried out by ALF’s balaclava-clad henchmen against universities and companies, while ALF’s militant splinter group, The Justice Department, targeted vets, researchers and business people. Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), set up in 1999, SPEAC (Stop Primate Experiments At Cambridge) and SPEAK, which focuses its ire on Oxford University, are the main groups active today.
Although by 2009 police estimated that up to three quarters of the most violent activists were behind bars, it is easy to see why their reign of terror made its mark on the research community and others involved with it such as building contractors and banks. The ALF’s founder, solicitor’s clerk Ronnie Lee, said, ‘If I heard that an animal abuser was hurt in violence, I would not be sorry.’ The efficiency of his and other groups at doing this led many researchers to keep quiet.
Support for researchers
But with a growing emphasis across all research sectors on the importance of public engagement,1 silent scientists who may have simply felt too busy with the day job may now feel encouraged to talk about what they do. For the nervous animal researcher, this may only happen if they feel sufficiently reassured by the outcomes of tight policing and the work of groups such as Support4RS, which provides advice and support  about extremism to individuals and organisations using animals in research.
There is no lack of support and training for those willing to speak on this topic, from organisations including my own, to Understanding Animal Research and the Science Media Centre. Perhaps surprisingly, some scientists seem more willing to speak in schools about animal research than to adult audiences. As Professor Max Headley, one of those attacked in Bristol said, ‘with adult audiences you can't guard against vigorous heckling and abusive language disturbing considered discussion; that doesn’t happen with kids.’
The Spartacus moment
Those who hesitate to talk about what they do could take heart from Professor John Martin, a clinician and researcher at University College London. Helping to launch the ‘People’s Petition’ in 2006, which sought public signatories for statements supporting medical research and called for scientists to be allowed to carry out their work without fear of intimidation or attack, he said, ‘If you remember the film Spartacus, when the Romans said “Stand up, Spartacus!”, all his mates stood up. If we all do that, there will be no target and the threat will disappear.’
Twice that same year, two Pro-test marches organised in Oxford by 16-year old Laurie Pycroft saw hundreds of scientists and others stand up for responsible animal research. At the first of these, neurophysiologist John Stein, who has faced particular anger through his work with primates declared. ‘This is a historic day. We have drawn a line in the sand.’
Five years on, we can perhaps hope for fewer Spartacus moments and historic days, and a growing acceptance of responsible, well regulated and thoughtful animal research as just one of many techniques used by researchers for patient benefit.
1 See, for example, last year’s Research Councils UK Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research