During their annual meeting in Chicago, the Society for Neuroscience (SFN) yesterday held a 2-hour lunchtime session dedicated to public outreach concerning animals in research. The panelists were international experts on communicating the importance of animal research to the public, and they offered invaluable advice to the hundreds of scientists in attendance.
While it’s clear that scientists – and the institutions that employ them – must be more proactive in communicating the importance of their research and the animal models they use, the panelists offered several tangible pieces of advice on how to achieve this goal. The strategies offered cater to researchers working with various animal models and, more importantly, with varying degrees of comfort in engaging the public in their research.
The session opened with remarks by the chair of the SFN’s Animals in Research Committee, Dr. Michael Goldberg, who stated, “We’ve been staying under the radar to avoid animals rights activists, and this strategy is not working,” particularly with respect to nonhuman primates in research. Earlier this year, Goldberg and the President of SFN, Dr. Steve Hyman, submitted a letter to Science in response to an article published there, “Embattled Max Planck neuroscientist quits primate research.”
The first panelist, Dr. Rolf Zeller, is the founding president of the Basel Declaration Society (BDS) and a founding signatory of the Basel Declaration, by which researchers recognize the necessity of animal research in biomedical research, and endorse the highest standards of ethically responsible animal research. Stating that researchers will “never convince PETA, but we can convince the public,” Zeller stressed the importance of engaging the public and offered the BDS’ most effective strategies for communication in Europe: regular media training sessions for trainees and established scientists, persistent use of social media, and open access publications on scientific communication. Zeller offered his “Golden Rules” for public outreach, which included:
- 1) Receive good training in science communication,
- 2) Be proactive and honest about your research,
- 3) Discuss your animal research with colleagues, especially any who might be skeptical, so that they understand why it is important,
- 4) Make it clear you care about animals,
- 5) Explain why animal research is essential for patients, and
- 6) Join the BSD and sign the Declaration to be part of a proactive community.
Dario Padovan, President of Pro-TEST Italia, a non-profit that “aims to promote and disseminate to the public correct knowledge on scientific research,” followed with an emboldening presentation on how the group increased positive public perception of animal research in Italy with regular strategies easily and equally employable in the US: 1) active, daily activity on social media (the group responds to every incorrect/negative Facebook comment on their page, 2) engaging young scientific experts to reach their contemporaries (saying “most users of social media are 18-34 years”), 3) regularly producing YouTube videos that show detailed primate research in a humane and responsible way (which receive tens of thousands of views and >90% net “thumbs up” ratings), 4) fighting fire with fire by creating satirical anti-animal rights propaganda, and 5) getting patients who benefit from animal research involved in public outreach.
Dr. Michael Mustari, Director of the Washington National Primate Research Center, then highlighted the outstanding care that nonhuman primates at his, and all of the other six, National Primate Research Centers in the US, receive, as well as the significant contributions primates have made in the advances of such diseases as HIV/AIDS, polio, ebola, and Parkinson’s disease.
Mustari said, “People who argue against nonhuman primate work do not pay attention to reality.” He drove home the need to engage with the public by showing the type of video that the public needs to see regularly to understand the value of primates in research, like this one showing a quadriplegic serving himself a beer for the first time in 13 years, thanks to advances made possible by primate research. Mustari ended by discussing the inspiring global outreach the WaNPRC performs under the directorship of Dr. Randy Kyes, Head of the Division of Global Programs at the WaNPRC.
Dr. Jason Goldman, an animal-researcher-turned-science-writer, rounded out the session by sharing lessons he’s learned from animals in communicating to a variety of audiences. Using brown-headed cowbirds and betta fish as examples of animals that change their messages based on who’s listening, Goldman said, “Animals have learned what I tell scientists over and over: Different messages are required for different audiences.” Goldman offered tangible pieces of advice for burgeoning (and established) science communicators, including 1) tell personal stories whenever possible and evoke emotion (using Cecil the lion as an example), 2) use simple visuals and avoid complex graphics (even popular infographics can be hard to digest), use memegenerator.net to make your own memes to communicate science on social media (this is perhaps the easiest tip to pick up, as I was able to create my own – and first! – meme in about 30 seconds during his presentation), and 4) be relatable and make the public feel smart, not stupid.
The session concluded with a Q &A session from the participants seeking additional advice on best ways to communicate the importance of animal research to the public when you feel like your institution is resistant to the idea, how to deal with the internal struggle of loving animals while conducting research with them, and more. Given that the session went 20 minutes over its scheduled time, it was clear the audience found it an invaluable resource.
Later in the afternoon, Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, gave a Special Presentation to SFN attendees in which he discussed recent advances in neuroscience with a particular emphasis on the BRAIN initiative. Though he rarely mentioned animal models in his talk, he did field anonymous questions from the audience afterward, one of which asked 1) what his personal opinion was on the role of animals, especially nonhuman primates, in the BRAIN Initiative, and 2) what concrete steps the NIH Directorship was taking to engage the public in the importance of animal research.
Collins stated that although the NIH worked with the Institute of Medicine to end chimpanzee research in the US, this “should not be seen as a reflection of how we feel about other nonhuman primates in research.” He concluded by acknowledging the need for primates in some of the more invasive studies for the BRAIN Initiative that cannot be conducted in humans, and by underscoring the need for continued outreach to the public on the importance of animals in advancing biomedical research.
Amanda M. Dettmer, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. Her writing does not reflect the opinions of the NICHD or the NIH.