A standing room only crowd of over 200 heard a panel of two scientists, a public relations expert and a reporter describe the whys and hows of discussing the use of animals in research (CAR) at the recent Society for Neuroscience meeting. The panel was sponsored by the Society’s committee on animals in research and led by the committee’s outgoing chair Sharon Juliano. It was part encouragement for speaking up and part a primer on how to do it effectively.
David Friedman, from the Wake Forest School of Medicine and a member of CAR, has long been engaged in defending the use of animals in research. He led off with an impassioned call for scientists themselves to engage the public. He pointed out that most scientists who use animals in their work do little or nothing to help the public understand what it is they do and why it’s important. Noting that animal researchers are doing morally admirable work and in today’s climate are courageous for doing it, he called on researchers to be proud of their good work and defend it vigorously.
Dario Ringach, from UCLA hit similar themes in his presentation on the top five reasons we should talk to the public about animal research. He cited a variety of surveys showing support for animal research, including one that found that more scientists believe in the importance of animal research than believe in evolution. He went on to argue for greater transparency from the research community to build public confidence and for scientists to weigh in on the ethical challenges posed by animal activists.
Lisa Newbern, chief of public relations at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center laid out the nuts and bolts of how to speak to the public effectively. Among her points were that practicing what you want to say is important and that interactions with the public should be a dialogue and not just one way communication.
The final speaker was Tom Whipple a British reporter for The Times of London, who has extensive experience in covering animal activism and other forms of anti-science zealotry. He noted how concerted effort in England had turned the tide against the activists. He cited the case of a protest against genetically engineered wheat that had derailed a research project until the scientists themselves stepped and made their case.
The crowd as largely younger scientists and students, and the lively discussion period that followed the presentations, showed just how engaged they are. A number of speakers described their own experiences that supported the points the panel had made.
This is the second year in a row that the room was full for the annual “animal panel,” a hopeful sign that more scientists will be engage with the public about their work.