Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Speaking out on animal research

A few weeks ago I was heavily involved in the story about the transport of animals for research.  The story, broken exclusively by the Today programme and The Times, revealed that over the past 7 years UK airlines and all ferry companies have withdrawn from carrying animals for scientific research after a campaign by animal rights activists.

Ever since learning that British Airways had pulled out in 2005 I had always felt that this story should be aired in the media, but the people on the front line of transporting animals urged caution.  While causing huge problems and extra expense, it was still the case that every time one company pulled out another was found to take on the trade.  As long as some routes remained open, and the UK’s scientific institutions were still able to get hold of the animals they needed, there was a strong feeling that this issue was better sorted out behind closed doors away from the media spotlight. But the problem was not sorted out and got steadily worse as the activists picked off targets one by one in a highly successful campaign. When Stena Line became the last of the ferry companies to announce that they would no longer carry animals for research in January 2012 those who had previously argued against media coverage changed their minds and agreed to speak to journalists.

There is much to be said about this story and, thanks to the extensive coverage by Today and The Times, many of the angles have already been covered in an intelligent, measured and accurate way.  But there is one issue I would like to address; for every scientist who agreed to take part in this story I spoke to many more that declined.  One organisation that transports animals into and out of the UK said they would prefer not to take part because they want to be known for their science rather than animal research.  And try as I did, I could not get a single pharmaceutical company to provide a case study. With the honourable exception of the brave academics put forward by the Medical Research Council and Royal Veterinary College, the journalists struggled to find anyone prepared to illustrate the problem with reference to their science.

This was not a new problem for me.  I have too many examples of this problem to list, but here are just a few: I once received an email about the official opening of an exciting new imaging facility jointly run by a university and a pharmaceutical company that told us that there should be no mention of the ‘A’ word in front of the press;  one head of comms at a science-based university told me that no-matter where I managed to find a scientist to speak on animal research it would never be from his university; and on the day that NICE licensed a new and controversial cancer drug I was contacted by a PR agency working on behalf of the company producing the drug and told to remove any reference to animal research from the list of quotes which welcomed NICE’s decision.  Nor is this reluctance always excused by fear of animal rights extremism – often people just feel that the public don’t like animal research very much and it’s just better not to allow this nasty bit of what scientists do sully the good news stories from  science.

One of the journalists writing up the transport story asked me whether anyone in the scientific community had considered generating a letter writing campaign akin to that of the animal rights activists.  He suggested that medical research charities could organize their patient supporters to write to BA, Stena Line et al to indicate that, far from deserting them for carrying animals, they will consider moving their custom elsewhere if they do not. It’s a neat thought and reminded me of a conversation I once had with a breeder at the sharp end of the problem, who says she has a recurring image of herself in the middle of a plane or a ferry asking passengers to “stand up if you use an inhaler; now stand up if you are a diabetic and use insulin; now stand up if you have cancer, have ever had cancer or know anyone who has it,” and so on.  It finishes with no-one left sitting and makes her point well – these customers benefit from the trade that others assume they will object to.

Nonetheless, I had to quickly disabuse my journalist friend.  While many of the big patient research charities now have statements on their website expressing support for animal research, and even produce leaflets on it, it would be wide of the mark to say they actively seek opportunities to speak on the issue and I think they are a long way from mobilising their supporters on the issue. With some honourable exceptions, research charities along with pharmaceutical companies tend to look to their umbrella group to ‘do animals’ for them, and I once caused outrage when I suggested adding a question about animal research to the form charities use to recruit media friendly patients.  Even to ask the question was considered beyond the pale.

If you want to think of anyone actually campaigning for animal research you would need to go back to 2006 to the wonderful story of Laurie Pycroft, the 16 year old boy who put mainstream science to shame by forming Pro-Test, his own organisation in support of animal research.  Tired of walking past the animal rights stalls in the centre of Oxford every Saturday, schoolboy Laurie walked into a WH Smiths, bought the necessary equipment and staged a counter protest, marking the start of a movement that at one stage saw thousands of scientists take to the streets of Oxford.  When the then Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Oxford to do a major science speech he requested that Laurie be in the front row of his audience so that he could publically salute him.

Much as I admire Laurie Pycroft, I’m not advocating that scientists take to the streets in support of animal research. My ambition is much more modest – that the scientific organizations, medical research charities and pharmaceutical companies who support the use of animals in research should stop avoiding saying so publically. Nor will there ever be a better time.  Poll after poll shows that the vast majority of the UK public support the use of animals in medical research if subject to tough and rigorous regulations (as is the case in the UK).  Blair’s support for Laurie Pycroft was one of many expressions of support from successive governments.  And a quick skim of the media coverage of the transport issue shows yet again that the entire British media supports the need for animal research and abhors the methods adopted by animal rights extremists.  Many of the extremists who wreaked havoc in the UK 8 or 9 years ago are in prison, and specialist police working in this field are make reassuring noises to researchers about the low level of threat.  People interested in evidence should know that that there is not a shred to suggest that anyone is targeted because they speak out (and certainly not the transport companies!).

I haven’t yet met a scientist who wants to use animals in research or would not use an alternative if available.  Indeed it is the scientific community who are coming up with ever more sophisticated ways to replace, refine and reduce the number of animals used, ably supported by the wonderful NC3Rs.  But in the UK we are still legally required to test new drugs on animals, and continue to need them to develop the new treatments and cures we desperately need.  For as long as that is the case scientists should be willing to defend this part of scientific research rather than pretend it doesn’t exist.

I know some will accuse me of being greedy.  In many ways the scientific community’s engagement in the transport story was a great example of how far we have come on the issue since the bad old days when Professor Colin Blakemore was one of only a handful of people who would speak on the issue.  Last week’s joint statement on transport was signed by a powerful group including the MRC, Wellcome Trust, ABPI, AMRC and LABA.  Pretty impressive.  But this success hides the fact that too many in science are happiest when no-one is talking about the animal research they do, and would prefer almost anyone apart from themselves to take centre stage.  I’m not sure that we can expect British Airways, P&O, Stena Line and all their customers to make a stand  for animal research while so many in the scientific community  continue to treat it as our dirty little secret.


hanat_akordor said...

Interesting blog.I have thought about this issue a lot recently after last Sundays debate on The Big Questions. The fact remains that animal research is a sensitive issue for many and you don't want to fall victim to bad publicity.Looks like Scientist are not as brave as the occupy London protesters and we value our reputation highly.
I do agree that we could be more proactive in campaigning for animal research but I certainly would not want to be the face behind that campaign and threat having my windows egged.

Hephzi - hanatakordor.blogspot.com

MorningAJ said...

I have to disagree with you on the suggestion that last week's reporting of the transport ban was "covered in an intelligent, measured and accurate way". There seemed to be one whole side of the discussion missing in most of what I read and heard.

So many of the reports I saw stated that "scientists" say that animal experiments are essential to the development of new drugs and treatments. There was no mention of the increasing number of scientists who feel that, in reality, animal work can be misleading and unhelpful.

No mention of the 90 per cent or so of drugs trials that fail in humans, even though animal work has suggested the substances are effective.

There was a lot of reporting of researchers saying that their work had to be carried out on animals because it was 'the only way' without a single journalist asking what else they'd tried. How did they know their way was the only way?

One reason that animal tests are still essential is that the regulatory authorities will not pass a drug for human use until it has been tested on animals - even if it was originally developed using human tissues and with the help of patients who already suffer the relevant disease(s).

This is probably because we are repeatedly told, in apparently 'intelligent, measured and accurate' reports that animal testing is the only way.

It isn't. But many people seem to have ignored that point.

Paul said...

The vast majority (most polls put it at over 95%) of scientists do support the use of animals in medical research, as they recognize that they allow scientists to obtain often critical information about living systems that they could not otherwise obtain, and of course to test hypothesis and evaluate new therapies. The idea that there's some sort of "animal" versus "non-animal" struggle going on withing the scientific community is a fiction that animal rights campaigners like to spread, the reality is that most scientists use a variety of approaches, and that most research programs employ a range of techniques, all of which -including animal research - have their role to play.

While it's true that there are far more scientists willing to speak out about animal research than there was a decade ago, Fiona is right in pointing out that more needs to be done. In particular there is still a disconnect between the medical breakthroughs reported in the news, such as yesterday's face transplant, and the laboratory (in many cases animal) research that made them possible, which often barely rates a mention. The situation is often worse when it comes to the use of animals in basic research, where the key scientific discoveries may have been made a decade or more before the new therapy hits the headlines. Is it any wonder that the value of basic scientific research is not appreciated by so many people (this of course applies fr wider than to just animal research).

Fiona is absolutely right to be concerned at the unwillingness of institutions to allow scientists to speak out about animal research, how does preventing those best placed to explain why the research is done from doing so advance tha cause of science and academic freedom. Perhaps scientists need to get together and let the PR and Comms people at their instititions know that their job is to help scientists to communicate, not to hinder them.

While a few charities have done a lot to explain their use of animals, the medical charity sector as a whole certainly does need to do more to make the case for animal research - and specifically the transport of lab animals - as they are uniquely placed to do so. Only they can mobilize and organize patients and supporters to put pressure on the transport companies to resume transporting animals for research. Quite apart from this, if the major research charities, who after all fund much of the research that is potentially under threat and represent the patients who depend on it, are seen to prefer to shelter under an umbrella group rather than take a more public stand, why should a transport company stick it's neck out?

Paul said...

hanat_akordor, I think you are missing a major point in Fiona's post. Her account suggests that the problem is not that scientists are unwilling to speak out, but that those in charge of communication at the institutions, companies and charities they work for don't even give them the opportunity to speak out. If requests from journalists are not being passed along to scientists by the PR departments of universities and companies how are those scientists supposed to respond?

This institutional chilling must end! No more "No comment"!!