Saturday, 29 September 2012
Fiona Fox writes:
Eight years ago I wrote a piece for the Observer entitled It's time to stand up and be counted, referring to the failure of the scientific community to speak on the issue of animal research. Looking back at the piece now it is clear I was in despair, describing the scarcity of scientists' voices as "the biggest collective failure of nerve in our society".
The familiar, solitary face of Professor Colin Blakemore staring out of the page illustrated my complaint: two years earlier the Science Media Centre (SMC) had been set up to encourage more scientists to face the media on controversial science stories such as GM crops, MMR and animal experiments, and yet Blakemore remained one of only a handful of scientists prepared to say anything in public – on the latter topic especially.
While I was busy raging at scientists for being silenced by animal rights extremists, researchers were reeling from a now infamous series of violent attacks on science. These were the days when the managing director of Huntingdon Life Sciences was beaten with a baseball bat, Cambridge University abandoned plans to build a new animal research facility and extremists dug up the grave of a relative of a family breeding guinea pigs for research. The combined effects sent a chill wind through the scientific community, which retreated further into its various ivory towers than ever.
On Friday, however, we woke up to the news that Leicester University had thrown open the doors of its new animal research facility to the media to coincide with its grand opening. So what has changed since 2004?
Seeing the threat to UK bioscience, the then science minister, David Sainsbury, took action, setting up units inside government and the police force and ordering a successful crackdown on the extremists. A wave of arrests emboldened scientists to speak out.
The animal research story started to change. Instead of pictures of activists in blood-spattered lab coats wielding "animal abuser" placards, the media filmed thousands of scientists taking to the streets in support of building a lab in Oxford, and reported on a new petition in support of animal research.
Not everyone has embraced the new climate as an opportunity to open up. Those companies and universities that were forced to fight back in the glare of the cameras were left exhausted and keen to return to talking about science in general rather than their animal work. Others conclude wrongly that keeping their heads below the parapet is the best way to escape a similar fate. And there are other hurdles.
Earlier this year we learned that all ferry companies and the UK's airlines have stopped transporting animals for research after campaigning by animal rights groups. Defending their actions, the companies cited the lack of public support for animal research. In fact, repeated surveys show that the majority in the UK do accept that, as long as there is no other alternative and the research is heavily regulated, we still have to use animals in the pursuit of better treatments and cures for devastating diseases. But the perception of public opposition reminds the scientific community that we cannot take public support for granted.
Nonetheless I am certainly less pessimistic than I was eight years ago. The fact that Leicester University put the "A word" at the heart of its media strategy is one sign of a warmer breeze. As the SMC reaches its 10th anniversary we now have a library of case studies showing that those who are proactive and brave reap the rewards.
I know many scientists who work on animals. They are not motivated by cruelty but by a powerful desire to push the frontiers of medical research and develop therapies for debilitating diseases. Each one of these scientists is proud of the work they do and, like Leicester University, they are starting to show that pride to the world.