Speaking Up: Who Does ‘No Comment’ Work For?

It is no secret that activist groups regularly aim for mainstream news coverage by producing sensationalized and misinformed stories about laboratory animals.  Like other topics in science that are generally not well understood, animal research can be a relatively easy target for misrepresentation. This is particularly true when such stories are met with little challenge by those who could contribute essential information, context and knowledge.

Headlines over the last month highlight both politicians and animal activists making savvy use of negative claims about animals in research in order to capture media attention for disparate agendas.  The recent press U.S. Senators John McCain and Tom Coburn garnered by targeting federally-funded animal research in a report on stimulus spending provides one good example of the approach. It also shows that animal research is not alone in the scientific topics that are manipulated as Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of the journal Science, pointed out in a response to the Coburn-Mc Cain report:

“As a former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, I was stunned that research projects now mocked as government waste included efforts critical to developing medicines to treat cocaine addiction.”

‘Monkeys Get High for Science’ is a funny headline, sure to generate media coverage of the report, which satirizes stimulus bill projects. But it’s a cheap shot at important research critical to finding medications for cocaine addiction.”

“Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) have also ridiculed federally funded research related to global climate change, biodiversity and antibiotic mechanisms.”

One of the major goals of Speaking of Research is to encourage informed public engagement and dialogue about animal-based studies and their role in scientific and medical advances.  The SR blog contains many posts and specific examples about how animal-based research contributes to scientific and medical advances. For example, Paul Browne has recently written about the development of a microbicide gel that reduces HIV infection rates and the use of hypothermia combined with xenon gas to prevent brain damage in newborns who suffered oxygen deprivation, while Dario Ringach has written about the development of Herceptin.

We also offer information, tools and support for those who choose to contribute to public discussion of animal research. In fact, there are many groups and sources for information and conversation about the issue. They include advocacy groups and collaborative networks such as Understanding Animal Research, Americans for Medical Progress, States United for Biomedical Research, the Foundation for Biomedical Research, and Animal Research Information. They also include scientific societies such as the American Physiological Society, Society for Neuroscience, American Association of Laboratory Animal Science, and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.  As well, a wide range of science bloggers, from philosopher Janet Stemwedel to DrugMonkey to Orac also provide timely, thoughtful discussion of relevant issues. Finally, many academic institutions have actively built outreach and education programs that offer good models for others.  In other words, there are many resources and avenues to support individuals who want to learn more and identify a range of effective ways to contribute to the public discussion of animal research.

Along with others, SR believes that immediate, factual, and vigorous responses to misrepresentative and negative portrayals of animal research are essential, regardless of the source of those stories.  We also recognize that among the many reasons scientists and others refrain from responding publicly to specific challenges is the belief any response will have a range of negative consequences while achieving little in the way of increasing public understanding. For example, responding may legitimize stories that have little basis in reason, increase negative attention, lead to media and activist demands for time-consuming continued responses, and draw fire from animal rights extremists.  All of these are reasonable concerns about likely outcomes.

Less obvious, however, are the unmeasured consequences of not responding to misrepresentation and of ignoring opportunities to provide strong, well-reasoned, and factual information to balance public presentation of issues in animal research.  To be clear, the question is not about changing the views or positions of those committed to ending all animal research. Rather, it is about providing the public with a balanced view of the issues. The response to stories about animal research illustrates high public interest. Unfortunately, what these stories also too often illustrate are major gaps in knowledge and understanding of science and the integral role animal studies play in scientific and medical advances. Moreover, they frequently perpetuate distorted views about how animal research is conducted.  One obvious way to counter those distorted views is to not let them persist unchallenged.

Media portrayals often fail to reflect the reality of the vast majority of animal research:  that it is conducted humanely by compassionate individuals engaged in ethical studies designed to advance scientific and medical progress and working under many forms of local, state, and federal regulation.  The part of that work that grabs headlines and enthusiastic response is found in scientific breakthroughs and medical progress.  The connection may escape public attention, however, because basic research and animal-based studies contributing the foundation for that progress are frequently either ignored or underplayed. This is perhaps understandable, as the story is usually the clinical breakthrough and the benefits that it will bring to patients, rather than the long years of hard work in the lab that made it possible.  As a result, the public is often simply missing information about the importance and the scope of benefits from animal research.  In turn, when confronted with questions about public policy and support of animal research, they are less likely to make informed decisions.

In short, without a solid understanding of how animal research contributes to scientific and medical advances, it is impossible to envision the likely consequences of ending animal research.  This is why all of the people who support animal research and understand its contributions to public health—including not only scientists engaged in animal-based studies, but also other scientists, their institutions, physicians, advocacy groups, educators, science journalists, and others—need to play a vocal role in education that makes the contributions of animal research clear. Although many people do not see animal research as “their issue,” public opinion of it can ultimately shape public policy and have far-reaching consequences.  Thus, it is everyone’s issue because it is foundational to scientific discovery, medical advances, and public health.

There are many reasons to get involved in the discussion and lend strong, informed voices to counter media misrepresentation and activist targeting of animal research. Scientists and institutions engaging in animal research are often reluctant to speak out when inaccurate and inflammatory media portrayals are aimed at them.  Part of the reason is that speaking out carries the possibility of fueling campaigns of harassment and violence by extremists.  In fact, this is where the activities of extremists—including those who directly threaten scientists’ lives as well as those who advocate violent means to achieve their goals—deliver benefits to all animal activist groups who prefer to distribute biased messages without risk of factual counter.  But it is a strategy that doesn’t work if it is countered by individuals, groups, and institutions who are unwilling to remain silent and who instead will speak out in support of research and in support of those who are directly targeted.  Animal extremists may be committed, passionate, and effective in working for their objectives by engaging the media, misrepresenting research, and executing activities designed to produce fear; however, they are less able to target everyone who speaks if that number is large, visible, and resolute. As Society for Neuroscience (SfN) President, Michael E. Goldberg, says:

“The only way we can protect ourselves is to fight back. Teach the public about the essential role of animal research in medical progress. Inform our legislators about the importance of animal research, and invite them to our labs. Our European members should join their own national neuroscience societies to further the policy advocacy in their own countries. We will never convince the animal activists about the importance of our work, just as they will never convince us. But we can and must convince the public and policymakers of the importance of animal research to ensure continuing medical progress, the inanity of animal activist groups like PETA, and the villainy of animal terrorists.”

So who does “no comment” work for?  Ultimately, it works for no one apart from those opposed to animal research.  While it may limit widespread or sustained public attention to a specific issue, individual, or institution, in the long-term it is more broadly damaging to all of us and to the overall goal of providing the public with accurate information from trusted sources with first-hand knowledge and understanding. Animal activists’ goals are not in the best interest of informed public discussion that considers both the merits of animal research, as well as its costs.  What we need are more voices that can deliver accurate information and meaningful context for news.  Foremost among the goals is placing the real objectives and achievements of animal research at the forefront of public consideration.

Allyson J. Bennett, Ph.D.

Speaking of Research

The views expressed on this blog post are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer, Wake Forest University Health Sciences.