Animal experimentation: nothing to be ashamed of

The scientific and political defensiveness about vivisection gives the green light to misanthropic animal-rights activists.

Patrick Hayes

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Bradford residents should be used to animal-rights activists by now: campaigners set up a weekly stall in the town centre plastered with hard-to-look-at pictures of dissected white mice and cats with microchips implanted in their brains. But this Saturday, Bradford residents really won’t be able to ignore the anti-animal testing activists, as 200 of them are expected to march through the city to the ‘animal torture chambers’ of Bradford University.

As anyone who has ever failed to dodge animal rights activists’ stalls on the high street will know, it’s hard to take them too seriously. Reasoning with individuals who still maintain a Disneyesque view of animals is usually a fruitless exercise. No amount of argument will convince them that lab rats don’t think like Einstein or suffer like Princess Diana.

The Bradford protest organisers, Stop Animal Experiments at Bradford Uni (SAEAB), are only too happy to use shock tactics to tug at our heartstrings. At the same time, SAEAB seems keen to show that its position is more scientifically in the know than that of Bradford University’s own researchers. ‘The testing of chemicals makes up a large part of animal research’, the group says in a section on its website called Bad Science, ‘so why is it that so many of these products are unsafe and carcinogenic when they have been proved as safe?’. SAEAB goes to great lengths to explain that ‘vivisection is scientific fraud’ because it is ineffective and inefficient due to ‘massive’ differences in anatomy between humans and animals. This, they argue, means that drugs may be developed that can actually ‘maim and kill’ humans despite getting a green light after extensive animal tests.

Elsewhere on its site, it attacks what it sees as the incompetence of researchers at Bradford, lists drugs that were tested on animals and had negative side-effects on humans, and explains why many tests carried out at Bradford University are unnecessary as scientists elsewhere will have already conducted similar experiments. It suggests that the work at the university amounts to gratuitous abuse of poor Thumper. Animal-rights activists tend to regard sceintific research centres as Auschwitzes for mice.

Tellingly, in taking this ‘bad science’, ‘unnecessary experiments’ approach, SAEAB, along with various other protest groups, is in effect applying the very criteria that has officially been adopted across UK research institutions: the 3Rs, namely to reduce, replace and refine the use of animals in research. These principles are based on William Russell and RL Burch’s 1959 book The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique.

Accepting these principles, and effectively creating common ground between animal-rights protesters and vivisectionists, has now become an essential pre-requisite for much state and private research funding alike. A group of government-funded research councils, along with the leading medical charity, the Wellcome Trust, has collaborated on a guidance document on responsibility in the use of animals in bioscience research. Researchers receiving funding from these bodies are ‘expected to give appropriate consideration to the 3Rs in any research involving animals which has the potential to cause the animals harm, and to explain in their research’.

In order to facilitate this, the former UK government announced in 2007 that it would double the funding of the body that undertakes research into the 3Rs, the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animal Research (NC3Rs), to over £5million in 2010-11. The NC3Rs declares: ‘Replacement is the ultimate aim for the centre, but as long as the use of animals continues to be necessary, every effort must be made to minimise the numbers used and improve their welfare.’ The organisation is mandating bringing together ‘stakeholders in the 3Rs in academia, industry, government and animal welfare organisations to facilitate the exchange of information and ideas, and the translation of research findings into practice that will benefit both animals and science’.

Why was the Labour government so keen to invest in facilitating a dialogue between ‘animal welfare organisations’ and scientists? After all, animal-rights protesters have always been a small, motley crew and, as Brendan O’Neill has outlined on spiked, their activities have diminished considerably over the past couple of decades. Why the need to kowtow to their kind of outlook in the attempt to find ‘common ground’?

The answer lies in the failure of scientists and research bodies to put forward a positive case for the necessity and benefits of animal research and experimentation. Instead of boldly stating the benefits of this research and making a clear ethical distinction between human beings and animals, scientists and the government alike tend to treat animal experimentation as a dark, guilty secret that goes on behind closed doors, while pumping money into organisations such as NC3Rs which declare that in an ideal world such experiments would not have to take place.

By emphasising the 3Rs over the scientific objectives of the research, while locking up extremists or curtailing their right to protest, this approach concedes the moral high ground to animal-rights protesters. Anti-vivisectionists are given far too much moral authority while scientists labour under layers of bureaucracy when they attempt to use animals in research. By treating animal research as some kind of furtive activity, the authorities provide animal-rights protesters with a whole new toolbox of tactics to use. For example, ‘intimidated’ scientists lie quaking as freedom of information requests are used to reveal details of experiments. SAEAB protesters claim: ‘If they’ve got nothing to hide, then it’s not a problem for them to put the information out there.’ Protesters hope that such requests will lead to a Climategate-style scandal, where unnecessary experimentation is exposed.

Already the battle lines are being drawn in London following the announcement of the building of a £500million world-leading biomedical research institute in Brill Place. The institute has been described by Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse as ‘probably the most exciting project for UK biomedical research in the next 50 years… Its ambition is immense and the promise of what can be achieved will excite and energise the global scientific community’. The site of the research lab, yet to attain planning permission, has already attracted protests by animal-rights activists. Clearly, animal-rights campaigners hope that by throwing the authorities’ own arguments back at them, they can delay or even block the building of the new facility.

There is another way. In 2006, then 16-year-old schoolboy Laurie Pycroft led a very progressive demonstration in support of animal testing, inspiring scientists and the public alike to stand up against activists attempting to prevent the building of a laboratory in Oxford. The PRO-TEST movement’s slogans declared ‘Animal testing cures disease, human beings before chimpanzees’ and ‘Stand up for science, stand up for research’ and they had a tremendous impact upon public opinion. These arguments need to be put forward once more.

Before the animal-rights protests gain any more momentum, it’s high time that these chants were repeated on counter-demonstrations, with scientists stating the positive case for the importance of animal experimentation in scientific research while exposing the misanthropic mindset behind the pseudo-scientific veneer of protesters. In the words of Professor Ian McConnell, it’s time we replaced the 3Rs with three ‘I’s: overcoming ignorance, investing in new research and taking initiative.

Patrick Hayes is a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum and one of the organisers of the Battle of Ideas festival.

Previously on spiked

James Panton proudly proclaimed himself a supporter of animal research and said extremist animal rights activists are not the chief obstacle to vivisection. Stuart Derbyshire made the hard arguments about vivisection and Helene Guldberg outlined the ethical case for animal research. Or read more at spiked issue Animals

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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