Animal research: Battle scars
Nearly one-quarter of biologists say they have
been affected by animal activists. A Nature poll looks at the impact.
23 February 2011
Nature 470 , 452-453 (2011)
In the past five years animal-rights activists have perpetrated a
string of violent attacks. In February 2008, the husband of a
breast-cancer biologist in Santa Cruz, California, was physically
assaulted at the front door of their home. In the same month, the
biomedical research institute at Hasselt University in Diepenbeek,
Belgium, was set on fire. In the summer of 2009, activists desecrated
graves belonging to the family of Daniel Vasella, then chief executive
of the pharmaceutical company Novartis, based in Basel, Switzerland, and
torched his holiday home.
A poll of nearly 1,000 biomedical scientists, conducted by Nature,
reveals the widespread impact of animal-rights activism. Extreme attacks
are rare, and there does not seem to have been any increase in the rate
of their incidence in the past few years, but almost one-quarter of
respondents said that they or someone they know has been affected
negatively by activism.
More than 90% of respondents agreed that the use of animals in
research is essential, but the poll also highlights mixed feelings on
the issue. Nearly 16% of those conducting animal research said that they
have had misgivings about it, and although researchers overwhelmingly
feel free to discuss these concerns with colleagues, many seem less at
ease with doing so in public. More than 70% said that the polarized
nature of the debate makes it difficult to voice a nuanced opinion on
the subject, and little more than one-quarter said that their
institutions offer training and assistance in communicating broadly
about the importance of animal research (see 'Assessing the threats').
During the past decade, both the United States and the United Kingdom
have enacted tough laws in response to violent tactics from activists.
In 2005, the United Kingdom created the Serious and Organised Crime and
Police Act, allowing stiff sentences to be imposed on those who
intimidate companies and individuals that contract with animal-testing
labs. Activists have since been found guilty of blackmail for
terrorizing individuals and companies with financial ties to Huntingdon
Life Sciences, a contract animal-testing company in Cambridgeshire, UK
(see page 454). In the United States, the 2008 Animal Enterprise
Terrorism Act was brought in to combat property damage and threats that
produce a 'reasonable fear' of death or injury for researchers or their
relatives, although its enforcement has been challenged in the courts.
These laws do not seem to have driven down the rate of violence. The
Foundation for Biomedical Research in Washington DC, which is in favour
of animal research, and the anti-animal-research magazine Bite Back,
based in West Palm Beach, Florida, collect accounts of activism
incidents from media reports and activist websites, respectively.
Although not comprehensive, their data suggest that the worldwide
incident rate has been stable for five years or more, with some regional
variation. Activity in Britain seems to have dropped since the
anti-Huntingdon campaign cooled. Protests have also been scaled back at
the Biomedical Sciences Building at the University of Oxford, which
opened in 2008 and houses research animals including primates.
Although Nature 's survey was not designed to measure the incidence
of activism, it suggests a similar picture: 45% of respondents said they
had not perceived an increase in activist activity in the past five
years, with some regional differences. US scientists were more likely to
say that activism had increased, whereas many UK scientists reported a
perceived decrease. Sally Rockey, deputy director for extramural
research at the US National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland,
says that the responses probably reflect the publicity drawn by
high-profile incidents, not real increases. "There have been some
life-threatening situations, arson and bomb threats for example. One of
the things we've seen is some investigators have been targeted at their
homes," says Rockey.
Animal researchers who said that they or someone they knew had been
affected by activism wrote about incidents ranging from anonymous
threats and protests outside laboratories to vandalism, 'liberation' of
animals, physical attacks by masked activists and bombs both real and
simulated. "Home damaged, young children terrorized, death threat, etc,"
reports one genomics researcher matter-of-factly.
A small number, about 15% (26 respondents), who had been negatively
affected by activism said that they had changed the direction or
practice of their research as a result. After encountering violent
protests, one US academic was "much less willing to conduct any studies
on non-human primates, despite their absolute critical relevance for
Only 38 scientists working with non-human primates responded to the
survey, but they were the group of respondents most likely to strongly
agree that activism is a problem. Frankie Trull, president of the
Foundation for Biomedical Research, says that in her experience, primate
researchers are targeted more than those in any other type of animal
Although more primate research is conducted in the United States, the
ability to work with primates has been challenged in Europe. In 2009,
the European Union considered legislation that would have restricted
work on non-human primates to research investigating "life-threatening
or debilitating" conditions. It took a concerted campaign by researchers
to amend it to allow for basic research in addition to applied work.
Hannah Buchanan-Smith, an animal-welfare researcher at the University
of Stirling, UK, says, "Primate laboratory researchers are finding it
harder to justify their research to the public." Buchanan-Smith refuses
to do any animal research that causes pain, suffering, distress or
lasting harm, and says that basic research on primates presents a
particular ethical challenge.
She argues for alternatives to animal testing. "Replacement is the
ultimate goal and we are moving in that direction with certain groups of
animals," she says. "I very much hope in my lifetime that will be
achieved in primate research."
Stefan Treue, head of the German Primate Centre in G�ttingen, views
primate research in a different light. He says that after lay-people
have visited his laboratory and seen how work is conducted and why,
"something like 98% understand and accept that this is a small but
important and irreplaceable part of biomedical science that is conducted
to the highest ethical standards".
Treue rejects an ethical distinction between basic and applied
research. "It's not a logical argument to say, 'I accept applied
research but I don't want the underlying basic research', because you
can't have one without the other. I have to admit that partly the
science community is to blame for not explaining that more clearly and
more frequently in public," he says.
Some results from the survey suggest that communication with the
public might be improving. Fifty-five per cent of animal researchers
said that their institutions encourage communication with the general
public about their work, and only 7% said that this is actively
discouraged. In a poll run by Nature on this subject in 2006, only 29%
of researchers said that they were encouraged to discuss their work, and
11% had been discouraged (see Nature 444, 808�810; 2006).
This is good news, says Rockey, but there is much to be done. More
than half of the researchers who said they are encouraged to discuss
their work indicated that their institutions offered no support or
training on how to do so. "It's important for institutions to have
outreach programmes which engage the public in explaining the importance
of the research," says Rockey.
It can be challenging to explain the type of nuanced positions on
animal research that the poll revealed: 33% of respondents had "ethical
concerns" about the role of animals in their current work. Researchers
wrote about their preoccupations with reducing pain, minimizing the
numbers of animals used and showing respect for their subjects. Some 16%
reported "misgivings" about work they have done, and half of these (54
researchers) said that they changed their research or practices as a
result, suggesting that personal reflection may be more effective than
activism at changing behaviour. "I consider these issues virtually
daily," wrote a US neuroscientist. "The day I stop considering these
issues is the day I quit. I know few scientists who don't feel
Trull welcomes scientists thinking deeply about the issues involved
in working with animals, and is glad that 93% of researchers said they
feel free to discuss concerns about ethics with colleagues. "There are a
lot of those discussions and debates that go on in the research
community. It's a privilege to use these animal models," she says.
"Scientists need to view it in this way and I think they do."