For some scientists and institutions engaged in animal research, activist campaigns against them are a fact of life. These campaigns vary in tactics, scope, and longevity. At one end of the scale are the limited scope campaigns, perhaps when a paper reprints, more or less verbatim, an activist press release manufactured from misrepresenting publicly-available records. At the other end are sustained campaigns aimed at driving a scientist out of research by using mail and phone harassment, home protests, car fire, or threats of targeting children.
Somewhere in between are other types of campaign that should be of concern to those interested in public views of animal research. One is the sustained high-profile, multimedia effort targeting a specific scientist or research area. Another is the lower profile, insidious, and sustained misrepresentation of animal research, including promotion of ideas such as: diet is the cure for most diseases; there are non-animal alternatives that could successfully achieve the same scientific goals as animal-based research; most research animals are not covered by any regulation; to name just a few.
These campaigns, and their consequences, affect everyone—scientists, physicians, medical charities, patients, policy makers, the public— with an interest in the current and future conduct of ethical, humanely conducted animal research aimed at progress in scientific understanding and medical advances.
Why? Because animal research depends on democratic support, with a majority who agree upon its need, its benefits, and the conditions under which it is conducted. It also depends upon the willingness of scientists to choose to spend their lives pursuing questions that currently require animal research. Finally, it depends upon public and private institutions’ willingness to provide the support and facilities for the work.
Animal rights activists understand this, and over many decades have developed and refined multifaceted approaches aimed at undermining each of these three cores that are necessary for continued research. So-called “Hearts & Minds” campaigns undercut public understanding and appreciation of research. They can also work against institutions and individuals by devaluing the true benefits of their work and increasing fear of unwanted, negative attention.
Meanwhile, harassment campaigns directed at specific individuals or institutions – while giving every appearance of affecting only a tiny fraction of scientists who are targeted – actually have disproportionate jmpact because they contribute to a general impression that there is a risk to researchers’ personal safety.
Beyond duress to individuals, these campaigns have a much broader and damning net effect: They contribute to creating a climate in which scientists, institutions, medical charities, and others are less likely to speak publicly about the value of animal research. In turn, they then contribute to decreased opportunities for serious, fact-informed, and civil public dialogue about animal research. They also lower the likelihood of the public receiving accurate information in the face of activists’ campaigns that rely on gross misrepresentation of the conduct, need, and benefit of animal research.
Viewed from this perspective, it seems clear that those institutions, organizations, and individuals, who maintain the belief that they are not personally affected by the issue because they have not been directly targeted by animal rights activism must be persuaded to reconsider.
What can be done to counter this ongoing public campaign against animal research? We have written previously and extensively about many approaches, venues and organizations engaged in effective ongoing efforts to explain the role of animals in research (here, here, here and here). We believe that the responsibility for public engagement and education about animal research is one that is shared by the entire community.
So what makes an effective public response in the face of animal rights campaigns?
To begin with, we acknowledge that there are very different domains of public engagement with animal research. Although they may have overlap in the broad goal of increasing public understanding, fact-based consideration and dialogue about research, they also differ in audience, participants, time-line, and goals, among other things. Two general domains include:
1) Outreach and education. Designed to provide the public with accurate information about animal research, including education about its conduct, goals, relative harms and benefits. Successful outreach and education programs include sustained efforts that may include full-time groups, communicators, and educators working in concert with scientists, clinicians, animal care staff, veterinarians and others, or may occur as service without formal support. The range of venues and creativity in outreach and education programs is broad. It includes face-to-face activities – laboratory visits to scientific talks, science festivals, community events, school workshops, for example. It also includes articles, newsletters, web posting and other educational written, oral, and visual material disseminated publicly.
2) Response to specific campaigns and events. Ideally, also designed to provide the public with accurate information about animal research. Designed to counter inaccurate information, provide balance and context where needed, and defend those who are attacked.
Both of these domains are essential to build public understanding of animal research and to promote opportunities for continued progress in serious consideration and fact-informed public dialogue of some of the challenging issues involved in this area. It is also the case that there are few norms for what good programs in either domain might look like. As a result, what we see currently is widespread unevenness across institutions and organizations in terms of how they handle these activities. Even the degree to which individuals, institutions, and organizations engage in any response varies markedly.
What would an optimal, successful response to an animal rights campaign look like? There is obviously no one answer, but if we arranged common response types we’ve seen over the last few years, we can identify some that are clearly less than effective.
The worst response is no response. Over and over again institutions discover that it simply makes it appear as if they have something to hide. Then, activists and the media emphasize the “suspicious” silence.
One up from no comment is the completely generic comment.
“The University of X conducts well-regulated animal research according to the principles of the 3Rs. Our research aims to better understand diseases such as diabetes and AIDS”
While better than no comment, it does nothing to address the media or activist concerns. Any institution which does only this has its reputation tarnished, and convinces activists that the institution will not challenge their accusations.
The middle of the road response is immediate and specific to the claims made. It will address and allay fears that an institution is ignoring its responsibilities to animals, explain the role of animals in research, and talk about specific research going on in the institution. This statement should include a comment from a very senior administrator, to show the institution is serious, and should include a link to the institution’s animal research policy. This statement should not only be provided to inquiring journalists, but also sent to any media outlet which has run the story. If those media outlets did not contact your institution first, then take this up with the editor – it is not acceptable to repeat claims without checking them first.
Institutions can improve these responses further, by inviting journalists or local politicians to view the facility. The best tours are led by someone with a clear understanding of both the science and the animal welfare implications around the lab (e.g., a scientist, a head veterinarian). This also serves to make personal connections with journalists and to immunize them against further animal rights campaigns.
Institutions should also be aware that publicly-available documents, ranging from USDA reports to veterinary clinical records, are often used by activists to generate news releases that may not be examined critically by reporters or others reading them. As a result, the information in these documents can be presented in a way that lacks appropriate context or interpretation. As we have written previously, this is one area which institutions and professional organizations could address more effectively by increasing their efforts to provide accessible explanations. For example, when materials are released to open records request, an institution can provide a cover page that offers explanation of terms, places numbers in context, or otherwise demystifies documents in order to allow a more informed, balanced, and open view to a reasonable reader.
However, the very best response is to get in there first. Don’t wait for animal rights campaigns to start your outreach – proactively offer tours to the local community, provide speakers for local schools- engage with those who may defend or turn against you. Also recognize that just as the science and discoveries occurring within your institution are of interest beyond the local community, so is news about your animal research programs. Reaching those audiences with accurate information about the animals’ humane care and value to a wide range of research should be an explicit and supported goal in communicating science news.
Speaking of Research