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Why animal researchers are ending their silence

Extremists silenced institutions and scientists for years, but researchers are now willing to speak up for good practice and valuable results

White mouse

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It was the silent majority finally voicing their opinion. A second rally attracted many more university scientists. They had got over their fear

Not long ago, those who carried out animal research in the UK were well advised to avoid secluded alleyways on moonless nights.

In the 1980s and 1990s, animal rights extremists waged vicious campaigns of intimidation and violence against researchers they suspected of being involved in vivisection, even going as far as attaching bombs to their cars.

One near-victim of such an attack, in 1990, was Max Headley, professor of physiology at the University of Bristol. “I got away with permanent tinnitus,” he explains. “But any passenger would have lost their legs and possibly their life. A baby in a pushchair on the pavement got some shrapnel perilously close to the spinal cord, and a damaged finger. It was not an experience one expects as recompense for working silly hours trying to improve understanding of pain processes – nor one that should ever be repeated.”

But the extremists’ real bête noire was Colin Blakemore, now director of the Centre for the Study of the Senses at the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, but then professor of neuroscience at the University of Oxford. Blakemore, whose research involved sewing down the eyelids of newborn kittens to see how their visual cortices developed, became a minor household name after more than a decade of intimidation, including death threats, a parcel bomb, threats to kidnap his children, an assault by masked assailants, letters laced with razor blades and regular, sometimes violent protests outside his house.

A letter-bomb campaign in the early 1990s only reinforced the climate of fear that pervaded UK animal research facilities, and Blakemore became a lonely voice in his advocacy for the benefits of animal research. Security measures at animal houses were beefed up and universities routinely refused to confirm their existence. All mention of animal models was expunged from press releases trumpeting the latest medical breakthroughs, and no medical research charity reliant on public donations – especially those with high street shops staffed by vulnerable volunteers – saw fit to mention that a certain proportion of donations would fund vivisection.

But the tide of reticence may finally be about to turn with the launch this month of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research. This will see research organisations, medical charities, learned societies and pharmaceutical companies committing themselves to a more transparent approach, including acknowledging that they carry out animal research, providing information about it when asked, and taking a proactive approach to making the case for animal research.

So what has changed? According to Tom Holder, founder of the advocacy organisation Speaking of Research and campaigns manager at Understanding Animal Research, one factor has been the hardening of public attitudes against the extremists since the notorious 2004 grave robbery of the body of Gladys Hammond, a relative of a family who ran a guinea pig breeding farm in Staffordshire. That outrage was the culmination of a relentless six-year hate campaign conducted against anyone connected to the farm, which included death threats and letter bombs.

Holder himself was instrumental in encouraging students and researchers at Oxford to speak out in defence of animal research amid a campaign by extremists in the mid-2000s that attempted to halt the construction of a new biomedical building containing a primate facility. The campaign, which succeeded in causing the original contractor to pull out, included the planting of bombs in college buildings and culminated in the 2005 arson attack on Hertford College’s boathouse.

According to Holder, the university itself consistently failed to defend its reasons for building the facility, and he notes that “the only reason to believe it supported it was the fact that it was building it”. But early the following year, a 16-year-old passer-by, Laurie Pycroft, reacted to an animal rights demonstration in the city by staging a one-man protest in support of animal research. Holder, who was an Oxford undergraduate at the time, joined several other students in pledging his support for Pycroft’s planned follow-up “pro-test” – in defiance of advice from university security to avoid it. He estimates that the turnout was three times that for an anti-vivisection rally held on the same day.

“It was the silent majority finally voicing their opinion,” he says. “There was safety in numbers and four months later a second rally attracted many more university scientists. They had got over their fear.”

He believes that those displays of support helped to convince the government and police to take animal rights extremism seriously – although the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, which contained specific clauses aimed at curtailing extremists’ activities, had already been passed in 2005. And the subsequent convictions of both the Staffordshire grave robbers and Oxford arsonists were just two of the many legal cases that took a “huge number” of animal rights extremists off the streets between 2006 and 2009.

White mouse

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Two-thirds of the UK population don’t know it is illegal to use animals for cosmetic testing. We haven’t managed to get that message across

This, according to Holder, led to a virtual eradication of violent anti-vivisection activity, such that there have been no recorded incidents in the past few years. (The convictions continue: in March this year a member of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty was jailed for conspiracy to commit blackmail for her part in targeting customers of an animal testing company, including the chairman of the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis in 2009, a campaign that involved the theft of his mother’s ashes and the burning down of his holiday chalet.)

However, animal rights activists did not go away. Instead, they turned their attention to “picking off” the transport companies that imported laboratory animals to the UK. The 2012 announcement by ferry company Stena Line that it would no longer transport lab animals closed the last commercial sea route and, with British Airways also refusing its services, researchers were left to rely on a small number of foreign airlines.

According to Fiona Fox, chief executive of the Science Media Centre, a worried David Willetts, minister for universities and science, summoned the UK companies to explain themselves, only to be told: “Most people in the UK oppose animal research and very few people defend it. If we don’t hear the scientific community defending it, why should we?”

Also in 2012, an Ipsos Mori poll showed that public support for the use of animals in research had fallen from 90 per cent in 2010 to 85 per cent in 2012, while the proportion supporting it specifically in medical research had dropped from 76 to 66 per cent. Responding to Willetts’ concern, Fox – who had spent “many years” trying to overcome universities’ reticence regarding animal research – conferred with the charity Understanding Animal Research and came up with the idea of a declaration on transparency. A pledge to work together to develop a concordat on the issue was signed by about 40 organisations and launched at a press conference in October 2012.

According to Wendy Jarrett, chief executive of Understanding Animal Research, transparency is the key to boosting public support for animal research, since “in most cases the reality is much less scary than people think it is”.

“Our survey last year found that two-thirds of the UK population don’t know it is illegal to use animals for cosmetic testing,” she says.

“It was banned in 1998, but we haven’t managed to get that message across. People also don’t know it is illegal to use an animal if there is an alternative method available. They still think of shampoo being dripped into the eyes of rabbits, or of beagles smoking – but tobacco testing has been banned since 1997.”

Although few disagree on the potential benefits of transparency, settling on a version of the concordat that all interested parties can sign up to has been difficult and time-consuming. According to Jarrett, some small charities worried that they did not have the resources to produce promotional material, while Fox notes that universities were concerned about the practicalities and security implications of opening up animal labs to visitors.

Dominic Wells, professor of translational medicine at the Royal Veterinary College and a member of the concordat’s steering group, agreed that coaxing signatories to commit to “a certain level of activity” had been tricky, while pharmaceutical companies were often wary of committing reluctant divisions overseas to greater transparency.

Nor were negotiations helped by a “sting” on Imperial College London’s animal facilities by the anti-vivisection charity the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, leading to allegations in The Sunday Times in April 2013 of mistreatment of animals, including poor surgical procedures and inadequate pain control. An unverified BUAV video, widely reported in the national media, led to headlines such as “rats guillotined in college’s lab”. This served as a reminder to all universities of the undiminished reputational perils of putting a foot wrong on animal welfare.

White mouse

Source: Alamy

Even though it has been 10 years since any real sort of criminal activity, in the corporate memory of an organisation that isn’t very long

Imperial responded by commissioning an independent review of the treatment of animals at its facilities, but not on the specific claims. The review reported last December and made 33 recommendations, all of which were immediately accepted, on how the university could improve its “operational leadership, management, training, supervisory and ethical review systems”.

The Home Office, from which licences must be obtained to carry out animal experiments, is carrying out its own investigation focused on the BUAV claims. A spokeswoman was unable to say whether this would be made public, but any wider lessons from it will be drawn out in a forthcoming report by the independent advisory body the Animals in Science Committee.

According to Fox, one institution mentioned the Imperial sting to her in a recent refusal to allow a journalist to visit its animal facilities. However, Jarrett said that no organisation had cited it as a reason to pull out of the concordat process. For Wells, the timing of the sting wasn’t helpful, but the report had almost certainly made other universities review their own facilities and processes, making it less likely that increased transparency would give activists sight of anything untoward.

Another concern for universities contemplating embracing greater transparency may be the public’s reaction to recent Home Office figures that show that the number of procedures in the UK involving animals has risen steadily from just over 2.5 million per year in the late 1990s to about 4 million in 2012, after declining from a peak of 5.5 million in the mid-1970s, mainly because of growth in the number of procedures involving genetically modified animals. The rise has come despite the establishment in 2004 of the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research. Known as the NC3Rs, it is a largely publicly funded body that spends £5.5 million a year on research into experimental techniques that could be used in place of work using animals.

At a press conference in February to launch the government’s delivery plan on the 3Rs, Willetts declined to commit to a reduction in the overall number of animal experiments, saying the number carried out depended on “patterns of scientific advance”. His refusal prompted vocal condemnation in the media by animal rights organisations, but his stance is supported by NC3Rs chief executive Vicky Robinson. She notes that the Home Office figures do not record the number of animals that would have been used if researchers were not using alternatives, and they are therefore not a good benchmark of progress in the 3Rs, which is fundamentally about “using as few animals as possible consistent with scientific objectives”.

She also points out that it is important to use enough animals in experiments to obtain statistically significant results: “It is just as bad to use too few as too many because, in both cases, you are wasting them.”

While scientists used to regard the 3Rs as a “peripheral” issue, Robinson says their attitude has been “transformed” in recent years by a recognition that improving welfare not only reflects societal and ethical concerns but also makes for better science, since animals that are poorly cared for are prone to react abnormally to experimental interventions.

The Royal Veterinary College’s Wells agrees that acceptance of this message is now almost universal among UK scientists. He adds that, in welfare terms, it is better to expose more animals to lower levels of suffering than a smaller number to higher levels: an approach that could be curtailed by pressure to reduce overall numbers.

Nowadays animals are most frequently used as models of disease and Wells says that the increasing number of animals used by scientists in recent years reflects a huge rise in the understanding of the genetic causes of rare diseases, for which interventions are then typically developed using mouse models. But he believes welfare standards are rising – precisely because the near-elimination of the threat of violent attacks has enabled more people to speak about their approaches, allowing best practice to spread.

He is confident that the number of signatories to the concordat will be greater than the original 40, but he believes that the amount of transparency they demonstrate in practice will require monitoring for the “foreseeable future”. He suggests that one crunch point might be if the release of the extremists jailed in the mid-2000s leads to a resumption of “terrorist acts”.

Feature infographic (1 May 2014)

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I hope a ‘duty of care’ to researchers and students will become synonymous with open communication rather than a reason to keep things secret

However, Jarrett dismisses that concern, noting that most of the jailed extremists have already been released. She points out that the Science Media Centre follows up with all scientists who speak out about animal research, and none has been targeted in recent years.

She says there has already been a huge transformation in universities’ levels of openness compared with the state of affairs a decade ago when, as a media officer for the Coalition for Medical Progress (a forerunner of Understanding Animal Research), it took her a full six months to negotiate permission for the BBC to film in an animal facility – even after offering the facility full editorial control of the footage.

“If I needed to get the BBC into an animal research facility now I could guarantee I could do that fairly quickly,” she says. “But even though it has been 10 years since any real sort of criminal activity, in the corporate memory of an organisation that isn’t very long. So there are lots of people who, quite understandably, still have a big worry about being open about their animal research.”

Fox says the tight-lipped approach is still not uncommon among universities, and there are only a small number of scientists prepared to speak to the media about instances where specific allegations of animal mistreatment have been levelled, such as the Imperial case. But she says willingness to defend animal research in the abstract has grown exponentially in recent years, with “hundreds” of scientists now stating their availability to the Science Media Centre.

She describes the concordat as a “very significant” step forward, and suggests that the pressure for greater transparency from funders, government and some scientists means that the balance of universities’ concerns has tipped slightly from “a fear of becoming the next Oxford and a target for huge protest to the fear of being exposed as not being open”.

“The legacy of intimidation and violence from extremism has silenced too many for too long and academics who wanted to speak often did not enjoy the support of senior staff, who took a more cautious approach. From now on I hope a ‘duty of care’ to researchers and students will become synonymous with open communication rather than a reason to keep things secret,” she says. “The use of animals in research is part of the story of science.”

The University of Bristol’s Headley agrees. In his view, scientists should no longer be deterred from speaking about the “small but vital” role animal experiments play in research – “not just for clinical medical progress but also for veterinary and wildlife studies, as well as core research [whose] practical utility…may not become apparent for many years”.

He praises the open approaches recently adopted by universities such as Leicester and Cardiff, from which “nothing dire resulted: just good news stories about exciting research and how well the animals were being cared for”.

But he fears that the “lull phase” in terrorist activity in the UK might not last unless public opinion is “carried along by responsible [news] reporting and greater openness by both individual scientists and their institutions” more generally.

“The greatest deterrent to terrorists is public opprobrium,” he says. “So the sector needs to work hard to ensure most of the public understand the very positive costbenefit relationship of using animals in research, most especially in comparison to all the other uses to which animals are put – such as in the food industry – and which generate vastly greater overall welfare costs.”

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Bad news travels: animal rights extremism worldwide

The UK is not the only country to have had problems with animal rights extremists.

In 2009, California saw a wave of intimidation and attacks against scientists. This included the firebombing outside his house of the car of David Jentsch, a professor of behavioural neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles, by an extremist organisation that accused him of getting monkeys addicted to drugs. Prior to that, in 2006, a fellow UCLA professor of behavioural neuroscience, Dario Ringach, announced that he would give up primate research after a prolonged campaign of harassment, including threats to his children.

The same year saw the passing of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which prohibits any attempts to “damage or interfere with the operations of an animal enterprise”, and increased penalties for infringement.

A March report by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, called The Threat of Extremism to Medical Research: Best Practices to Mitigate Risk through Preparation and Communication, says activists have increasingly targeted individuals rather than institutions of late.

Kevin Kregel, professor and chair of human physiology at the University of Iowa and co-chair of the report’s steering committee, says this is because universities have adopted tougher security measures since being targeted in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Although the report advises researchers to limit the amount of publicly available personal information, Kregel emphasises that no one had been physically hurt by extremists. The report also calls on individuals, as well as institutions, to “take the initiative to communicate the benefits of animal research” to local communities.

Kregel is concerned by the potential for extremist activity to escalate internationally as more countries, such as China and India, become research powers. He points to Italy as an example of a country that is currently grappling with a growing problem.

Last April the University of Milan was broken into and occupied for 12 hours by animal rights protesters, who mixed up cage labels to sabotage experiments and took away about 100 mice and rabbits. The same group had previously released beagles from a dog-breeding facility.

Oxford “pro-test” veteran Tom Holder helped to organise a demonstration by scientists in response to these actions in Italy last June, as he did at UCLA in 2009.

Other avenues: alternatives to animal use

According to Vicky Robinson, chief executive of the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research, her biggest problem is keeping up with the demand for grants to pioneer new research methods that avoid the need for animal experimentation.

Techniques such as stem cell manipulation and computer and mathematical modelling are “building up a fantastic toolkit” – although there remains “some way to go” to convince scientists that such techniques can be “as good as or better than” animal models, she admits.

Dominic Wells, professor of translational medicine at the Royal Veterinary College, points to scientists’ increasing understanding of the molecules involved in biological processes as another reason for optimism, since the increasing amounts of data gathered about them will make modelling their behaviour much easier.

He also notes that the pharmaceutical industry has been cutting down on animal use for many years by undertaking cell and tissue-based experiments instead. Some techniques are even being developed to mimic the conditions cells and tissues encounter in vivo, such as by passing fluids over the cells that line blood vessels.

Regulations aim to ensure that animal research is carried out only when there is no alternative technique. However, Wells notes that the current legal framework requires safety testing of new pharmaceuticals and medical treatments on animals before they are used in human trials and he struggles to envisage a time when animal experimentation is redundant.

Robinson agrees, but insists animal testing will eventually be used only in exceptional cases.

“It is a long way off,“ she says. “As fast as we are developing technologies to replace animal use, scientists are coming up with new opportunities for it. But I am really optimistic about the progress being made. Maybe not in this generation but in the foreseeable future things will be different.”

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The right thing to do: University of Manchester case study

Last September, the University of Manchester became the first UK university to publicly endorse the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research’s Arrive guidelines on improving the reporting of animal experimentation in academic papers, aimed at avoiding needless duplication.

Nalin Thakker, associate vice-president for compliance, risk and research integrity at Manchester, says the university’s policy on animal research is more stringent than statutory requirements regarding issues such as whether a less sentient species could be used instead. He says this approach has received wide acceptance by being presented as “the right thing to do”, and of a piece with the university’s “values and culture”.

“The argument I make is that if we do the right thing the regulations almost always take care of themselves,” he says.

Emphasis on the scientific importance of carrying out experiments on animals with high levels of welfare had also contributed to precipitating a “major change” in researchers’ attitudes to welfare issues over the past five years, he adds.

The policy is enforced by regular audits conducted by the university, but Thakker says they are carried out in a supportive spirit and do not amount to “beating people over the head”. Disciplinary sanctions exist for those who refuse to implement improvements, but they have never had to be used.

He says public concern has helped focus institutions’ minds on welfare issues. “But most people who enter animal research understand we can only justify it if there is an explicitly and stringently defined need and we have the highest standard of welfare of animals in our care.”

He says Manchester has never hidden the fact that it does animal work, and is prepared to defend it publicly. But it remains concerned about safety and avoids identifying specific researchers who work with animals. It also keeps silent about the location of its animal facility, since “there are often public protests and we don’t want to put staff in any danger”.

Best of British: UK inspires attempts to eliminate ‘disturbing’ practices

Few would disagree that the UK leads the world on animal welfare standards.

According to Dominic Wells, professor of translational medicine at the Royal Veterinary College, Switzerland and Scandinavia are “not far off being on a par” with the UK but “an awful lot of countries worldwide are an awful lot worse”. This is despite a recent European directive on welfare standards that “is really based on what we do in the UK and is trying to persuade the rest of Europe to do the same thing”.

Even US institutions exhibit variable standards, owing to the absence of national rules covering the most commonly used lab animals, rats and mice, and the lack of an equivalent to Home Office inspectors, who conduct checks on labs in the UK several times a year, usually without warning.

He says it is not well understood globally that poor welfare leads to poor science. “As a reviewer I get to read a lot of manuscripts from abroad and some of the animal work done is very disturbing,” he says.

“I have on a number of occasions recommended to the editor to reject papers because I don’t want to see that sort of animal work given any prominence.”

Such recommendations are typically heeded, although Wells was disappointed to see another journal publish a paper he had rejected on the grounds that the repeated insertion, without anaesthetic, of a needle into a mouse’s muscle to make it a “better model” of muscular dystrophy was “the most ghastly thing I had ever read”.

His sense is that while all journals have “some kind of animal welfare statement”, some are better than others at adhering to them, and his “suspicion” is that UK-based journals take them more seriously than most.

According to Vicky Robinson, chief executive of the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research, there is no equivalent body to the NC3Rs abroad. However, “a lot” of overseas demand exists to take part in the NC3Rs’ activities.

She said the organisation would soon be providing some written resources in Chinese and would be attending a Home Office-led conference in China about implementing the 3Rs.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Great article. The situation in Italy certainly shows how bad things can get if scientists do not do enough to explain their work to the public, as this article by Italian neuroscientist Nicoletta Landsberger shows http://speakingofresearch.com/2014/03/25/help-girls-with-rett-syndrome/

    The good news is that scientists and supporters of medical research in Italy have been working hard over the past year to counter the lies, disinformation and distortions of the animal rights lobby, and their efforts are reflected in growing public support for animal research http://speakingofresearch.com/2014/01/20/public-opinion-on-animal-research-in-italy-2014/

    This is further evidence that for animal research - as for any other controversial area of science - the best approach for the scientific community is openness, outreach and advocacy.

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  • Stevan Harnad

    DOUBLE STANDARDS

    Hurting innocent, helpless animals is abominable. Terrorizing researchers and their families is abominable. But although the transparency, standards, regulation and answerability of biomedical research are nowhere near humane enough to protect lab animals from suffering, the animals bred, brutalized and butchered daily in grotesque numbers by the meat, poultry, dairy and fur industries have next to no protection at all from their agony -- and, unlike with biomedical research, there is not even the pretext that those abominations are necessary for human health or survival (but rather the contrary).

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