Animal rights groups and extremists have raised a very loud chorus against animal research. Well-funded, media-savvy campaigns and over-the-top publicity stunts ensure that the public receives a biased and negative message about the role and value of animal studies. As a result of decades of investment in extensive campaigning, these groups have contributed to decreasing public understanding of, and support for, animal research. At the same time, frustration with failing their major goal—to end all use of animals in research—has contributed to an increase in harassment and violence directed against scientists by animal rights extremists.
Yet those of us who engage in scientific outreach and education efforts find that members of the community, including students, welcome opportunities to hear from us and to learn about other views of animal research. The great majority are interested in knowing more about why we believe animal research is essential, how we treat animals in our care, and how our studies may contribute to improvements in human and animal health. There is no shortage of public interest in learning more about animal research. This is particularly true among the youth that are the targets for carefully crafted campaigns by groups like PeTA.
The question is not whether the public is interested and can be reached with “our” message, or whether there are ample opportunities to do so. Opportunities for scientists to engage in community outreach and education are not limited. There are a large number of outstanding educational programs, including those with long histories as well as more recent initiatives, in which many scientists participate. Interest in issues related to animal research and ARA activity is also reflected in active discussion in venues such as Science Blogs, where bloggers DrugMonkey, Isis the Scientist, and Janet D. Stemwedel have all engaged their readership in posts and vigorous commentary on issues related to animal research.
The question really is whether more scientists will choose to commit time and energy to animal research advocacy efforts. And underlying that question are others: Among all of our obligations and competing pressures for time, why spend time on outreach and education? What will it achieve? Why can’t someone else do it? Don’t animal rights people “win” if I take time away from science to speak out on animal rights issues?
The short answer to all of these questions is that the voices of scientists engaged in animal research are essential to challenge the loud chorus of misinformation rising from animal rights activists and dominating the discussion. In absence of challenge, it seems likely that the current trend towards decreasing public support of animal research will continue. It may well escalate as increasingly effective social media campaigns executed by ARA groups pervade elementary school and onward without effective counter. The results of decreased public support are obvious, far-reaching, and—ultimately—damaging to public health.
Some people are philosophically committed to a position in which no use of animals, for food, entertainment, research, is morally acceptable. The majority of people, however, do not equate animals’ rights with those of humans. Many times people confuse animal welfare with animal rights. Many people do not understand how animal studies contribute to breakthroughs in medicine and why these studies are necessary for progress. People are also often not aware that animal research is conducted humanely and is well-regulated at federal and local levels.
All of these issues are complex. The success of many animal rights groups’ campaigns depend heavily upon poor public understanding of animal research, uncountered misrepresentations of scientists and their work, and exploitation of the misconceptions and negative perceptions that many people have of the use of animals in the biomedical and behavioral sciences. Unfortunately, for the most part, animal rights groups have also been able to count on launching misinformation campaigns with very little threat of organized, public response from the scientific community.
Scientists can provide an effective counter to animal rights extremism by presenting accurate representation and information, by demonstrating visible and active support for their own and their colleagues’ work, and by engaging in respectful exchange of ideas with those who seek open discussion of the use of animals in research.
Speaking of Research provides a venue for scientists to speak out in favor of lifesaving research developed with animals. SR was founded by Tom Holder and inspired by the successful British student movement “Pro-test”. In the UK, Pro-Test’s experiences have shown that an informed public will rally together against animal rights extremism and come out to support scientists in their use of animals in lifesaving biomedical research.
SR aims to challenge animal rights dominance of the issue by participating in talks and debates on campuses across the country and by utilizing web-based communications tools to organize a network that can provide encouragement, information and support to all who care about medical progress. We also challenge ARA campaigns directly when they are based upon misrepresentation.
SR is run by a committee of people who believe that animal research remains crucial to the future of medicine. Among its successes is the first mass pro-research demonstration in the US in April of 2009 at UCLA, site of a spate of attacks against researchers. Following a car fire attack by animal rights extremists, Professor David Jentsch, founded UCLA Pro-Test and held a rally that drew 700 supporters and demonstrated the strength of active and visible animal research advocacy.
There are many ways to serve as an advocate for animal research. Some are as easy as signing an online petition. Coordinated efforts and vocal, concerted support is important to all of us and to the future of biomedical research that is essential to improvements in human health.
A member of the SR Committee, I have recently founded the North Carolina Chapter of Speaking of Research (NCSR). NCSR seeks to support scientists in active and visible efforts to provide the public with accurate information and resources about the importance of animal research in medical science. It also serves as a local exchange for news about issues related to advocacy and about local animal rights extremism. Please join our facebook group or email me at NCSpeakingofResearch@gmail.com for more information.
The views expressed on this website/blog are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer, Wake Forest University Health Sciences.