Animal rights and wrongs

There are welcome signs that the tide of violent activity may be turning, especially in the United Kingdom. Many factors may be at work. Stricter legislation may have an effect; Over the years, both the UK and the United States have introduced laws that reinforce the seriousness of acts of vandalism intended to threaten and blackmail people involved in animal research. Groups in favor of such research have also helped to defuse violence.

Pro-Test, an organization based in Oxford, UK, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this week, has managed to counter a campaign of misinformation and intimidation that has fueled plans to build a biomedical research facility at the University of Oxford. Almost failed (see page 457).

Other groups have begun to follow Pro-Test’s lead, including a branch at the University of California, Los Angeles, which has been repeatedly targeted by activists. Active campaigns to protect public investment in research and pressure on lawmakers have aided in the response against extremism. But these are only part of the solution.

Scientists regularly face the dilemma of how open to be about their animal research. According to a recent survey by the UK National Center for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research, nondisclosure is common in the scientific literature as well.

Such a lack of openness may impede reproduction and replication of previous work (C. Kilkenny et al. PLOS One 4, E7824; 2009). Such findings have prompted many journals, including Nature, to adopt more explicit rules about what is reported in the literature (see http://go.nature.com/5zbqp4).

Talking to the public is important. Sometimes, the threat of violence means that individual researchers may not want to engage directly with the public and should be cautioned against doing so. But that is no excuse for the institutions that conduct animal research – including most research universities – not having vigorous and well-defined programs to explain what is going on within their walls.

Institutions must publicize the high standards they are required to meet before animals can be used. They should also discuss their strategies for replacing animals with more sophisticated research equipment, refining research practice, and reducing the total number of animals used. If they do not have such a strategy, the institutions should develop them as a priority.

Some scientists working with animals have already set out to explain the importance of their research. Others should follow his lead. Nature’s survey found that more than 50% of researchers were encouraged by their institutions to engage with the public, yet more than one-quarter did not feel they were given the necessary training or support. This is unacceptable: There are resources available, including tips on how to communicate effectively and how to best respond to personal threats.

Activists often attempt to isolate researchers from their institutions and the wider community. If researchers build better and stronger relationships with both, they can be sure that it is the extremists who are marginalized.

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