Animal research: it’s time to open this can of worms

Universities should go public about their experiments on animals, and win society over.

Mark Conlon

Topics Science & Tech

The author is writing under a pseudonym.

I am a postgraduate student at a British university, and some time ago I was summoned to the office of my head of department. It was explained to me that a letter I had written to a national publication on the subject of animal experimentation contravened the rules on communicating with the press. In my hurry to have my say on one of the issues of the day, I had rather carelessly neglected to remove the automatic signature which attaches to the foot of all my outgoing emails. The printed letter thus identified the department and the university to which I belonged and this, I was told, could have given the impression that the opinions I was expressing were also attributable to the university.

It was a schoolboy error, which should perhaps be forgiven as I am the research institution’s equivalent of a schoolboy. Meekly, I apologised and offered to make any amends that were necessary. Cheekily, I asked if my chastiser had a spare copy of the newspaper in question so that I could treasure the evidence of my first publication in a national. Hastily, I retreated to the safety of my office with my tail between my legs.

Perhaps it should end there, as the university’s response is perfectly understandable. Obviously there is a need for an institution to retain its own voice, and the potential for there being hundreds or even thousands of wannabe spokespeople, all with widely differing opinions, isn’t likely to be conducive to clarity. My department head was just doing his job in this regard, as was his liaison in the press office.

However, I have come to the conclusion that on the contentious issue of animal research, the matter of concern was not simply whether the university is misrepresented – it is whether it is represented at all. It was made clear to me that the university didn’t want any Tom, Dick or Harry manufacturing university statements on controversial matters. More interestingly, it seemed implicit in my warning that the university would rather steer clear of this particular can of worms altogether, and not bring the subject of animal research at the university to the forefront of the public mind.

Past experience has taught universities and laboratories that activists can be a very serious thorn in the side of research. Small groups have broken into and entered laboratories, damaged equipment, released experimental animals, and, in more extreme cases, caused mental and physical harm to researchers and subcontractors. In many cases this has necessitated investment in employing security personnel and in securing premises. In the case of Cambridge University, harassment by a group called SPEAC (Stop Primate Experimentation At Cambridge) contributed to the decision to stop building one laboratory in 2003.

It is good business sense for research institutions to keep as quiet as they possibly can about what goes on behind closed doors. If you can avoid the attention of the public, you can also avoid the attention of those whose activities could potentially bring down a programme of research. As a result, it’s tempting to view the silence as simply another security measure. But such a strategy is likely to have a negative impact on our culture more broadly.

Public ignorance of what takes place in laboratories means that the truth about animal research can be replaced in the popular consciousness by myth and legend. Imaginations run wild, and when footage of contemptible mistreatment of animals taken by an undercover activist is made public, many see that as representative of how animals are treated in laboratories across the country. This leads to more negative feeling and mistrust of the scientific community, and so the circle tightens. In addition, secrecy only increases the chances of employees contravening the law on how to treat animals, whereas if accountability took place through more visible channels then the chances of mistreatment would virtually disappear.

In reality, animal welfare laws in the UK are particularly strict, and evidence of mistreatment has not surfaced for many years. But the vacuum of information from the research institutions does the public image of animal testing no service in the long run; rather, it allows the anti-vivisectionists effectively to determine how animal experimentation is represented. They set up camp in our shopping precincts and show the same old tired pictures of mistreated dogs and chimpanzees, taken long ago and sometimes far away. They get their petition signatures because the other side of the argument is not put forward. The extremists feel validated.

The research community needs to be encouraged (via top-down intervention if necessary) to take its research activity out into the open. This would necessitate extra expenditure on security, but the number of self-righteous extremists intent on stopping research would decline following a more accurate and sympathetic public perception of animal experimentation. More investment would need to be made on justifying and communicating research plans, procedures and outcomes to the general public, but in doing so the scientific community would only be fulfilling part of its societal function. Some experimental procedures would appear shocking to the public, and there might even be calls for their abandonment; but transparency would enable researchers to engage with the public and make it explicit why such procedures are necessary. And if they aren’t, then perhaps abandonment is the only democratic course of action. Science serves society. It must be seen to do so, and it must be seen how this is accomplished. This is a difficult hurdle for the scientific community, but it cannot be avoided.

The tide has begun to turn. In their official capacities, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the Medical Research Council and now the government have all come out in support of animal research. But they must be joined by other institutions, who need to act together to end the culture of secrecy which serves neither science nor society, or the relationship between them. This particular can of worms should be opened.

Read on:

spiked-issue: On animals

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Topics Science & Tech


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