Category Archives: SR in the Media

Big Questions, but few answers from opponents of animal research

A recent edition of the BBC1 Program called “The Big Questions” offered a brief debate on animal research. Among those discussing the issues was SR’s founder, Tom Holder. Within this post we will discuss some of the many issues which were touched upon, but barely explored in this brief debate.

Some of the questions centered on moral issues, other on scientific ones. At the beginning of the discussion Prof. John Stein of Oxford University explained his use of monkeys in studying Parkinson’s disease, after which he was asked if he would experiment on great apes.  He replied he would not, unless there was some extreme circumstance that required them.

Where would you draw the line?” — countered the host.

Let us pause for a second here. This is an important question that is worth asking. But first let us consider – and reject all the theories that do not involve drawing any lines at all.  What theories are these?

One is the Cartesian view, which posits animals do not truly suffer, do not really have emotions, and do not really have interests of their own. Consequently, the Cartesian view is that humans can use animals as we please. We do not know any living scientist or philosopher that would seriously defend this view.

The other theory that does not draw any lines is the animal rights view, in which all living beings have the same basic rights to freedom and life as a normal human. Although most members of the public reject this view as making no sense at all, nobody in the panel cared to explain, nor did the host bother to ask, what justifies this stance.

What Prof. Stein articulated as a justification was a version of something called the sliding scale model.  Here, the moral weight of a living being’s interests depends on the individual’s degree of cognitive, affective and social complexity. Where we draw the line for different types of experiments in animals is a valid and important question, but we can only ask it that if we all agree with the notion of graded moral status.

Opponents of research reject such a theory.  Alistair Currie, from PeTA, stated:

Suffering is suffering.  We have a moral obligation not to impose it on anybody.”

We generally agree that unnecessary suffering should not be imposed on other living beings, and as Prof. Stein stressed, scientists work hard to ensure that suffering is eliminated or reduced to an absolute minimum in laboratory animals. We do not think there are absolute moral principles.  Even “thou shall not kill” permits exceptions, such as in the case of self defense. Another example is the infliction of harm to other human beings that was, for most of us, morally justified and necessary when it came to liberating the concentration camps in Nazi Germany.

If we truly had an absolute moral obligation to never impose suffering on anybody, as PeTA representative Currie suggests, liberating concentrations camps would be morally wrong. We might accept such a declaration from someone who is a declared pacifist, but we have plenty of evidence to suggest that PeTA is a far from being such an organization.  PeTA remains morally confused.

Invariably, when opponents of animal research fail to make an ethical case for their position, they attack the science. In this case, it was Kailah Eglington, representing the Dr Hadwen Trust, who was in charge of this strategy.

“Scientifically looking at the facts, the animal model is flawed.” — she declared without even blinking.

Wait a second. Where was she when Prof. Stein explained how he found an area of the brain that when inactivated could relieve the symptoms of Parkinson’s? How does she explain his success?  Or does she deny the benefits of the work?

Ms. Eglington also suggested that Prof. Stein could have used non-invasive methods in humans, such as MEG, suggesting the same information could be obtained by this techniques. As Prof. Stein pointed out in his response this is flatly wrong. Prof. Stein not only uses a range of such techniques, including MEG and fMRI alongside his studies in macaques, but with his colleagues at Oxford University pioneered the use of MEG as a research method in patients undergoing deep brain stimulation. However, none of the non-invasive methods can yield the same data that one obtains using micro-electrode recordings from the brain, as we discussed in an earlier post on the limitations of fMRI.

A quick visit to the Dr. Hawden Trust web-site reveals that they state with absolute certainty that:

Alternatives to animal experimentation are available in virtually every field of medical research.”

Wow…   Let’s be clear: this is complete utter nonsense that deserves to be filed here. Should we be surprised at the lack of sensible science by someone who, on the side, founded an organization which claims that “the power of positive thinking” can treat physically debilitating conditions.

Kailah Eglington furthered her pseudo-scientific nonsense by claiming that: “9 out of 10 drugs that are tested on animals successfully fail in humans“. The problem here is the mistaken blame on the animal model – these same drugs have already passed pre-clinical non-animal tests such as cell cultures and computer models; moreover, about 90% of drugs fail at every stage of development – meaning that 90% of those that pass early clinical trials in humans still fail to make it to market – this is not something we can blame the animal model for. We have previously written a full and clear rebuttal of the 90% claim – however it continues to be used by the animal rights community.

Such examples go to show a common problem for advocates of science – that it takes a lot longer to debunk junk science, than it does to make it up. While Tom Holder and Prof. Stein argued science’s case very well the debate highlighted some of the limitations of this format, though perhaps this is all we can expect from a format that tries to address Big Questions in 15 min of television programming.  It seems the goal here is more to get opposing sides to have a screaming contest rather than to provide an opportunity for thoughtful exploration of the questions at hand.

Speaking of Research

Tom Holder to Debate on the BBC’s Big Questions

Tom Holder, founder of Speaking of Research, will debate the question “Is Animal Testing Ever Justified?” on the BBC1’s The Big Questions. The show is live on Sunday at 10am GMT (BBC1 – UK Channel).

The panellists speaking on the show, hosted by Nicky Campbell, include –
Supporting animal research:
– Tom Holder, founder of SR
– Prof. John Stein, an Oxford University Neuroscientist who was a scientific advisor to the student movement Pro-Test

Those against include:
– Peter Tatchell, human rights campagner
– Kailah Eglington, Chief Executive of the Dr. Hadwen Trust
– Alistir Currie, from PETA

Furthermore, there will be a selection of religious figures (who are mainly there is discuss the other question of the direction of the Church of England and Polytheism).

This debate coincides with the recent problems that Britain is having in transporting animals in and out of the country.

Speaking of Research.

AAAS recognizes the work of Speaking of Research members

On Friday two of our number, David Jentsch and Dario Ringach, travelled to Vancouver to join their UCLA colleague Edythe London in receiving the prestigious Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society, with over 125,000 members, and the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award “honors scientists and engineers whose exemplary actions, often taken at significant personal cost, have served to foster scientific freedom and responsibility”. Recent recipients including the climate scientist James Hansen, NCSE director and defender of science education Eugenie Scott, and epidemiologist and public health expert David Michaels.

Both Dario and David have been long time SR committee members, writing numerous articles for the website on the importance of animals in research, the importance of researchers speaking up, and the dangers of animal rights extremism.

Both scientists are at the heart of the Pro-Test for Science, the movement which stood up to extremists at UCLa in 2009. Around 800 staff, students and members of the public followed Ringach and Jentsch’s lead as they marched through the streets of Los Angeles in support of lifesaving medical research. Well over 10,000 people followed their example by signing the Pro-Test Petition (supported by Pro-Test for Science, Americans for Medical Progress and Speaking of Research) in support of well regulated biomedical research on animals.

Edythe London has also been at the forefront of the battle to explain the role of animal testing in the development of modern medicine. In November 2007, she wrote a Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times to explain “Why I use animals in my research”. This excellent article was a brave and important stand for a researcher who had previously been targeted by animal rights extremists.

Animal studies allow us to test potential treatments without confounding factors, such as prior drug use and other experiences that complicate human studies. Even more important, they allow us to test possibly life-saving treatments before they are considered safe to test in humans. Our animal studies address the effects of chronic drug use on brain functions, such as decision-making and self-control, that are impaired in human addicts. We are also testing potential treatments, and all of our studies comply with federal laws designed to ensure humane care.

The AAAS made this award to Dario, David and Edythe in recognition of:

 “their rare courage, their strong defense of the importance of the use of animals in research, and their refusal to remain silent in the face of intimidation from animal rights extremists.”

While noting that:

“AAAS has consistently supported the responsible use of animals in research, testing and education. A 1990 statement of the AAAS Board and Council noted, for instance, that “the use of animals has been and continues to be essential not only in applied research with direct clinical applications in humans and animals, but also in research that furthers the understanding of biological processes.”

With this award the largest scientific organisation in the U.S. reiterates its unequivocal support for the responsible use of animals in biomedical research, and emphasises the increasing need for both scientists and professional organisations to engage the public in both scientific and ethical issues of great importance to our society.

We at Speaking of Research are grateful for the contribution which all three scientists have made to advance the public understanding of this controversial area of science – and we congratulate them for their accomplishments.


Tom Holder

Waking up the Neighbors: A Neighborhood Response to Animal Rights Extremism

In previous posts, we’ve highlighted revolting new tactics by AR extremists, including the targeting of students and young scientists. Some animal rights extremists envision a future where the nation’s brightest students and talented scientists must live in fear for the safety of themselves and their families.  As for what such war would look like, some of SR’s members have first-hand experience. Now, thanks to some outstanding reporting by Public Television in Southern California (KCET), the public has a chance to see how some scientists who seek to cure disease and end suffering are now the targets arson, assault, vandalism, death threats and stalking.

The KCET segment exposes the elements of hate and violence in a movement that, paradoxically, believes itself to be based on compassion and kindness.  It makes the main goal of such activism clear: to intimidate, threaten and harass the victim.   As one of the neighbors justifiably asked these activists — “Why don’t you demonstrate at UCLA instead?”   Of course, the answer is obvious; it is easier for these terrorists to threaten families at their homes.   They are not attempting to “educate” anyone about their position.  They are simply trying to force their views on society by violence and threats.

Here’s that report:

Testing the Limits.

Despite their repetitive claims online that their message is welcomed by neighbors, the opposite is actually true. Those who live in proximity of researchers being targeted support their neighbors even though they are, themselves, negatively affected by the focused pickets. This was noted in a report on an animal rights demonstration on a LA activist website which described animal rights extremists being “met with irate neighbors at every visit”.

Recently, near the home of UCLA researcher Edythe London, signs appeared on lawns throughout the neighborhood, with residents trying to give the picketers a strong message. If the petty vandalism and theft of the signs by animal rights protesters is any cue, that message was received.

It isn’t surprising that the animal rights extremists are put out by the clear display of support for scientists by their neighbors, after all, a major objective of “home demonstrations” – aside from harassment and intimidation of targeted individuals and their families mentioned above – is to isolate scientists from their neighbors and turn their neighbors against them. The demonstrations against the UCLA scientists have clearly had the opposite effect, prompting neighbors to rally around the scientists and their families.

SR would like to thank KCET for its balanced look at this issue as the report highlights three important questions that we feel must be answered:

1. How can the topic of animals in research be rationally discussed in the current environment of hate, threats and violence?   How can anyone expect scientists to participate in such discussion if they stand to be targeted at their homes simply for speaking up their minds?

2. How can such a discussion take place when many of those opposed to the research are blind to the countless human and animal lives saved through highly-regulated animal studies?

3. Most importantly, in this toxic environment, how can we ensure continued health advancement when the scientists of tomorrow may become the targets of today?

We believe that the scientific community cannot wait for extremism to end before scientists can start to discuss animal research. We believe that it is no longer acceptable for the scientific community to leave the task of speaking up for science to a handful of brave individuals, we must do more to support and protect those who are targeted by extremists. The answer lies in a community response to extremism that fosters a culture of proactive public education and engagement. Waiting to be targeted before responding is no longer an option, and there are many ways in which students and scientists can discuss the vital role played by animal research in advancing medicine without taking risks, as our friend Scicurious points out in an excellent post on the Experimental Biology 2011 conference:

Many animal researchers are worried about becoming targets for threats and violence, but you don’t necessarily have to stand up and make yourself seen. You can work through your professional societies to talk to people in government. You can write letters to your own government representatives. You can INVITE those representatives into your labs, to see what you do and what it all means. You can go into classrooms and talk about your work, or bring the classrooms to you and show them. You could even write a blog post on the internet. By reposting, retweeting, and passing it on, you can spread the word about funding and the necessity of careful animal research. And if all that still seems too much, you can always start with your family and friends. Tell them about what you do. Many of them may not even know. And tell them what it’s all for, and what we’re going through because of it. Because in this case, when the data speaks in a language only experts can understand, scientists have to stand up and do the talking.”

These are great suggestions, though as the experience of scientists at UCLA shows, in addition to talking to family and friends, talking to your neighbors can yield great results.

Speaking of Research

The Animal Researcher who Refused to Hide

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) highlights a recurring theme in the struggle between researchers engaged in responsible, legitimate scientific study of animal subjects and critics of that research. That is, an open willingness of a few fanatical elements within the animal rights movement to embrace violent acts and an effort of more “moderate” elements to personally distance themselves from the perpetration of violence, while tacitly justifying it, in the same breath.

Jerry Vlasak, spokesperson for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, is quoted:

If Jentsch won’t stop [using animals in his research] when you ask nicely, when you picket in front of his house, or when you burn his car,” says Jerry Vlasak, a spokesman for underground animal-rights groups, “maybe he’ll stop when you hit him over the head with a two-by-four.”

This chilling statement, while steeped in hatred and sociopathy, is not surprising. Mr. Vlasak has created a cottage industry around making such statements, likely because of the notoriety and public attention he receives when he makes them. The repetitive nature of his open embrace of such threats of harm belie the fact that he really has little else of any merit to add to the discussion of the ethics and science of animal-based research.

What is increasingly noteworthy, however, is the willingness of self-identifying non-violent activists to justify, explain away or apologize for the violent acts used to intimidate researchers.

In February of 2010, Pro-test for Science joined together with a student animal rights organization, Bruins for Animals, to host a civil dialogue on the science and ethics of animal-based research. Despite our attempt to build a rational and open discussion with the group, the Chronicle reporter indicates that Bruins for Animals:

does not endorse violence, but Kristy Anderson, who founded it in 2004, says she understands the anger behind the attacks on researchers and wouldn’t be surprised if, sooner or later, a scientist got hurt.”

If animal rights activists feel that they are being moderate when they do little more than refuse to “endorse violence”, they are deluded and wrong. Moderation and civility involves the repudiation of violence – a far cry from the poorly veiled attempt to pin the blame for animal rights extremism on researchers who are doing nothing more than engaging in legitimate, ethical and legal research intended to save life.

Robert Jones, a philosophy faculty member at CSU-Chico, restates Ms. Andersen’s take on extremist violence when he tries to explain their position.

  They believe what you are doing is morally wrong, and they feel disempowered to stop it,” he told Mr. Jentsch.”

What the author of the Chronicle article did not describe is his unwillingness to say that what animal rights extremists are doing to scientists is wrong, or – for that matter – his unwillingness to criticize similar efforts by anti-abortionists like Operation Rescue or anti-gay hate groups. One only has to stop for a moment to realize just what Ms. Andersen and Mr. Jones are really saying: if animal researchers, abortion providers or people practicing their sexual preferences in private make you mad enough, it is only understandable that you might turn around and hurt them; if one feels powerless to stop perceived unacceptable and immoral behavior of others, “any means necessary” is an unfortunate but expected consequence.

The parallels between elements within the animal rights movements and the hate mongers from the religious right are revealed in these statements. All these groups involve zealots who hold a point of view that they believe is uniquely enlightened. Each has a self concept that incorporates moral superiority and purity of vision. All believe that those who violate their moral framework are sinners, and that they are entitled to mete out justice in turn.

So, what happens when a group like this sets their sights on you because of your job and/or characteristics? Will others turn away and “understand” the violence and hatred directed at you?

Or will we all, as members of a civilization of rational human beings, come together and say – once and for all – that harassment, intimidation and threats are unacceptable and must be stopped? And, more importantly, will we start to combat violence and confront extremism now, before it finds its way to the door of others?

David Jentsch

Coverage of the Pro-Test for Science rally 2010

The Pro-Test for Science rally (yesterday) was a huge success, and here is a selection of the coverage from it.

First up, Nature introduced the rally as:

A rally in defense of scientists who use animals in research drew between 300-400 supporters to the campus of the University of California Los Angeles today.

The UCLA Newsroom gave a great summary of the event in their posting. They also clearly showed what was at stake as they talked about the importance of research in animals:

Animal research at UCLA alone has led to lifesaving medical breakthroughs in cancer, stroke, organ transplants and many other areas. There is overwhelming agreement among physicians and scientists worldwide that laboratory animals provide irreplaceable and invaluable models for human systems. Research involving laboratory animals at UCLA is heavily monitored and subject to stringent and multiple federal laws and university regulations.

The Daily Bruin covered the event, noting some fantastic comments from those marching:

UCLA researchers, students and faculty were among the hundreds of protestors advocating for animal research who, despite coming out for different reasons, marched alongside each other.

“I participate in animal research, so obviously people threatening directly impacts the research we are doing, so it is important to show our solidarity,” said first-year psychology doctoral student Kimberly Beach.

Stephanie Groman, a graduate student in psychology, came out to protest as more than just a researcher.
“Amongst other reasons, my family has been afflicted with cancer, and both of my parents are survivors of cancer because of animal research done on chemotherapy treatments that have allowed them to live longer”.

Janet Stemwedel (Adventures in Ethics and Science) made an important comment that such rallies should not be limited to researchers:

You don’t need to be someone who conducts animal research to take this kind of stand, just someone who recognizes the ways that animal research helps us take care of some of the most vulnerable members of the human community.

Abel Pharmboy (Terra Sigillata Blog) mentioned the rally, adding how important animal research is to every person – including himself (he is also calling for people to add their own similar stories to his blog):

Bear in mind also that virtually every single prescription drug sold across the world has required animal research and testing for their development. Every single drug.
Animal testing was required for me to receive the antibiotics, anti-inflammatory steroids, and bronchodilators needed for me to recover from my long bout of pneumonia this year.
Animal testing was required for the vaccines and drugs needed by our beloved family dog.
Animal testing was required for the organ transplant that has allowed my wife to have her mother and my daughter to have her grandmother for the last eight years.
Animal testing is the reason that my mother is a 25-year breast cancer survivor.

There were also mentions of the rally on the blogs from DrugMonkey, Scicurious (Neuotopia), and Nick Anthis (Scientific Activist).

A Review of 2009

2009 has been a big year for Speaking of Research as we went global with debates in Dublin, presentations in Ystad (Sweden), and rallies in the Los Angeles. In the US, Speaking of Research also had the opportunity to get the advocacy message outo to hundreds of scientists and researchers at 2009 annual meetings of both the Society for the Study of Reproduction in Pittsburgh and the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago. We also expanded our repertoire of social media (e.g. YouTube and FaceBook) to include Twitter – ensuring our message can be spread as widely as possible. This has clearly been effective as our website traffic has been increasing by approximately 50% every 6 months.

Just as we haven’t stopped, nor has the world of biomedical research. There have been advances in genetically modified monkeys, progress in combatting Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD), the use of gene therapies for cerebral X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy and Leber’s congenital amaurosis and research into repairing heart damage. Read all about these and more in our Science News section.

A Novartis executive has his house burned down by the Animal Liberation Front in August 2009

Sadly, the animal rights activists and extremists have also not slept this year. The Animal Liberation Front (ALF) have struck across the US with a home visit (with paint stripper) to the UCI chair of pathology, arson attacks against a UCLA Professor’s car, vandalism to lab suppliers in Nevada, and threats made across the web to researchers across the country. Given many university’s preference to play down or bury stories of animal rights extremism against them it is hard to get a clear indication of the total level of attacks made by the “anti-vivisection” community. There has also been a rise in attacks across the rest of the world, particularly in the campaign against Novartis Chief Executive, Daniel Vasella, who’s holiday home was firebombed, and parents’ graves were desecrated. It is in response to such attacks that we developed a new page on the website specifically to deal with AR Extremism.

However there has been a shining ray of hope in the US. After the attack on Professor David Jentsch’s car in Los Angeles, a group of professors and researchers founded Pro-Test for Science (originally named UCLA Pro-Test). In April 2009, Pro-Test for Science (supported by Speaking of Research) organized a rally in support of life-saving medical research. This demonstration attracted almost 800 people, and provided a platform for researchers to explain the importance of their research to the Californian media. Many UCLA officials came out to speak out against extremism and in support of science. Read the full report of the rally.

The Pro-Test march snakes along Westwood

The rally also begun another campaign. Supported jointly by SR, Americans for Medical Progress and Pro-Test for Science, Tom Holder announced the creation of the Pro-Test Petition – a public petition to support the use of animals in medical research. So if you haven’t already, sign up now! This petition has already gained a following of close to 12,000 signatories – and the number continues to grow.

So here is the tip of the iceberg of the events of Speaking of Research in 2009. To win public support we cannot slack now, and I urge as many new people as possible to get involved in our growing committee.

Wishing you a Happy New Year

The Speaking of Research Committee