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Feb 26, 2006

Oxford Scientists Bite Back at Animal Rights Activists

How can scientists get more people excited about their work? Based on what happened yesterday in Oxford, holding a major demonstration—complete with speeches, signs, catchy slogans, and a march through the center of town—might be a good start, at least if the work has become a major hot-button issue. Although I probably wouldn’t attract many people to a rally on my work in protein structure determination, the same cannot be said for animal research, as the student organization Pro-Test mobilized hundreds of people on Saturday, 25 February, and took their pro-science message to the streets of Oxford.

Since the University of Oxford began building a new biomedical research center featuring improved animal research facilities in 2004, animal rights activists have enjoyed a pervasive visibility, holding small weekly protests and occasional larger national protests. Despite the vast majority of Oxford students supporting the completion of the new research center, the animal rights protesters have monopolized the spotlight, largely because few scientists have publicly spoken out in favor of the research. With the constant threat of violence from fringe groups, it is not surprising that many of the affected have not spoken up.

If people have interpreted this silence as a lack of support for animal research at Oxford, though, such notions can be put to rest once and for all after the showing at the Pro-Test rally Saturday, where hundreds of people—scientists and non-scientists, members of the university and others from the community—joined together to send a strong message to anyone harboring these doubts. Although the BBC reported a turnout of “nearly 500 people,” other estimates put the crowd at closer to 800 participants (including the Guardian), with it possibly topping 1,000 at its height. Despite the large numbers, the crowd was well-controlled and remained on-message. It was clear that the people there felt strongly that animal research is integral in achieving the promise of modern biomedical research and that they would not let a small number of extremists deter medical progress.

As I approached Broad Street, the starting point of the demonstration, at about 11:15, I could already tell that the mood in the air was much different from the last time I ran into a major protest in Oxford, the 14 January animal rights protest sponsored by SPEAK. Most people seemed to be going about their daily business as usual, with even the gaudy red double-decker tourist buses running on schedule. Down at the far end of the street, though, a crowd was amassing, carrying signs with slogans such as “Build the lab,” “Animal Testing Saves Lives,” and “Stand up for science.” There was a large security presence, marked by fluorescent yellow police jackets, but it was not as excessive as with the prior animal rights protests.

By 11:30 a crowd of a few hundred demonstrators had descended on the site, and the chants began. Sometimes it was “Stand Up for Science! Stand Up for Research!” Other times it was “Pro-science! Progress! Protest!” (this one works especially well in a British accent) or one of the others that were repeated with vigor throughout the event. At 11:45 Tom Holder, an undergraduate student in politics who would be the emcee for the day, kicked off the first round of speeches. He set the tone for the event, keeping things positive and displaying a good sense of humor.

The first speaker was Laurie Pycroft, the 16-year-old founder of Pro-Test, who has subsequently become a major target of animal rights extremists. “This is a very good day for scientific progress,” said Pycroft during his short opening speech. “This is the first time to march for the Oxford lab.” The importance of this day would be a common theme throughout the event.

Pycroft was followed by John Stein, professor of physiology at Oxford, who also called Saturday a “historic day” as he set out to give listeners a “true picture of animal research and why it’s important.” He gave several examples of where animal research had benefited patients, including such diverse conditions as meningitis and dyslexia. To address the common theme in animal rights circles that scientists are needlessly cruel to animals, he proclaimed that “animal welfare is paramount in our minds” and is “closely regulated by the Home Office.” Stein received enthusiastic cheers when he wrapped up his speech with an appeal to the popular support for animal research, which would be another common theme throughout the rally. “This is not just an argument about animal rights, but also one about democracy.”

MP Evan Harris addresses the crowd.

The final speaker on Broad Street was Even Harris, a local member of parliament from the Liberal Democrats, who greeted the crowd by saying “I’m pleased to see this rabble rousing of the best kind.” He also addressed the wide support for animal research in the United Kingdom. “There may be a few hundred here, and there may be a few thousand, but we speak for millions in this country.”

By the time the demonstrators began marching, the energy level was high, and they joined in on the chants enthusiastically. The crowd was young and energetic, with an average age of less than thirty and consisting mostly of university students. Still, participants ranged from young children to the elderly. The march went very smoothly, without any major incidents, although at one point the protest was subject to some shouting from a single observer from the animal rights camp, succeeding in distracting a large amount of attention (especially from the media) away from the march. However, the march continued on unabated.

I had come to the rally with the explicit goal of reporting on the events of the day, and nothing else. Although I fully supported animal research and the goals of Pro-Test, I had previously expressed some doubts as to how effective this demonstration would be. By the time the march had reached Holywell Street, on its way to the construction sight of the biomedical research center, I was truly caught up in the moment, and I transitioned from a casual observer to a full-fledged demonstrator. It was impossible to resist: the positive message, the driving energy, the clever chants—it was all just too much, and I found myself as close to the front as possible, yelling as enthusiastically as anyone else.

“No more threats, no more fear! Animal research wanted here!”

“What do we want?” “The Oxford lab!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”

As the chants resounded and echoed between rows of centuries-old buildings, it was clear that this was a message that truly resonated with the people of Oxford. It was a message of hope and a message of promise, of determination and courage. This wasn’t about torture or hate, violence or intimidation, profit or financial gain. This was about people tired of letting a fringe element push its beliefs on them, while threatening to stall the medical progress that they want and have come to expect—not so much for themselves, but more so for those they know affected by serious medical conditions.

After turning onto Mansfield Road, the march reached the construction site around 12:30, and more speakers began, kicked off by Tipu Aziz, a neurosurgeon at the Radcliffe Infirmary. His speech was lofty, describing the day as a “return to reason” and the “return of democracy to the UK.” He crossed the line into fantasy, though, when he proclaimed Saturday to be the “end of animal rights terrorism in the UK.” Although public support for animal rights organizations might be beginning to wane, as people are turned off by the extreme tactics the movement has resorted to, the activities of the most radical groups—including widespread destruction of property—show no signs of ending anytime soon.

Aziz was followed by Kristina Cook, a chemistry graduate student at Oxford and a Pro-Test organizer. Cook’s speech focused on the success and promise of animal research in finding treatments and cures for today’s diseases. She noted several examples where animal research had led to widely used treatments and noted that many of these were developed at Oxford, most notably penicillin. “We cannot let the advance of knowledge be stopped like it was in Cambridge,” said Cook, referring to the ill-fated animal research center there that was eventually terminated due in part to animal rights activism. “Let’s stand up for reason. Let’s stand up for our right to determine that the animal lab is constructed without interference.”

Pro-Test member Kristina Cook explains her support for animal research.

After two additional speakers, the march reversed course and headed back toward the town center for more speeches at Radcliffe Square. Suddenly, I found myself at the back of the protest, and without the sustaining crowd energy in the front rows I suddenly snapped back into reporter mode. I remembered why I was there in the first place, and I wanted to find answers to the same questions I had asked at the January SPEAK protest: who are these people, and why are they here?

There is something romantic (to me, at least) about the idea of scientists organizing masses of other scientists to rally in favor of a scientific cause. You can call me a skeptic, though, because however compelling this idea was, I was not expecting to find anything approaching this. After all, scientists aren’t really known for direct political action. I was pleasantly surprised, though, as I found that the Pro-Test event came much closer to approximating this ideal than I had espected.

I found a healthy mix of people at the rally, covering a spectrum of disciplines and backgrounds, but the majority of people I talked to were in a scientific or medical field and most were Oxford students. Interestingly, a particularly large number were current medical students. One said “I’m seeing a lot of people I know,” although her friend, who studies history at Oxford noted “it’s not just the sciences here.” Another medical student said “I’ve seen a lot of my professors,” but he also noted that he saw a lot of non-scientists there as well. These students explained that they received a few emails about the protest, but many students did not attend because they “didn’t want any trouble” and many feared violent retaliation.

The others I met and conversed with included students in other scientific subjects, students in English, politics, and other non-science subjects, a science publisher, and others who did not specify their connections to the university. These enlightening conversations with other demonstrators were soon cut short. When the march reached Radcliffe Square and speeches resumed, a participant who was particularly interested in the speakers told me very directly to be quiet so she could hear what they were saying.

A few speeches here ended the day, including one by Simon Festing, executive director of the Research Defence Society. “Of course they have the right to protest, but that doesn’t make them right,” he said in one of his more quotable statements. He later rose to full form again when he said that his response to the question “How do you sleep at night?” is “Healthy and well, thanks to medical advances.” After a few more words from emcee Tom Holder, the protest ended and the crowd dispersed, but not before the participants had been given quite a bit to chew on.

Despite some occasional soundbite moments, the speeches were packed with substance and carried an important message. Although complaints about the animal rights protesters were a common topic, it was not the focus of the protest. Instead, the message was in general very positive, more about education than advocacy. The people were there because they wanted to see the full promise of medical science fulfilled, and animal research would be the only way to do that.

On my way home after the protest, I happened to walk by the SPEAK protest occurring on the other side of the research center construction site. As I walked the length of South Parks Road, all I heard was “Stop the Oxford animal lab!” repeated over and over again from a crowd numbering somewhere between 50-100 people. Taking in this loud noise but lack of substance, I began to reflect on how my experience at the Pro-Test rally compared to my previous experience at a SPEAK rally.

Those who have read my account of the SPEAK rally on 14 January may have noted some pretty obvious similarities between the two experiences. At both, I approached the rally on Broad Street, noting an initial lack of energy and people. As energy began to build through a few speeches, the protesters marched toward the construction site, and I was swept along. I ended up on the front lines of the demonstration, in the middle of the action, when it reached the construction site. When the rally heads back toward the center of town, though, energy begins to wane, and I interview the participants before finally heading home.

Despite these superficial similarities, the deeper differences are glaring. The SPEAK protest focused primarily on inciting the crowd and making verbal attacks, mostly directed against animal researchers but also aimed at the security forces present and anyone else associated with the project, including the construction workers. None of this happened at the Pro-Test demonstration. Although speakers at the Pro-Test event often mentioned the animal rights protesters, it was not done in such an aggressive way, and that was not the main focus of the event. Also, while the Pro-Test speakers were able to give specific examples of how animal research has benefited society and why it is important that such research continues, the SPEAK speakers were not able to provide much substantial information at their protest.

Another more tangible difference was the larger turnout at the Pro-Test event, demonstrating just how strongly people in Oxford support animal research and the great degree that they had been silenced in the debate up to this point. Significantly, a large portion and possibly most of the participants were in the medical or scientific fields. Scientists, so intent on protecting their objectivity, in general are difficult to propel into action on political issues, even when science could be impacted in significant ways. The fact that this cause propelled so many young scientists into action Saturday could mean that some of the rhetoric about this being a historic day or a new beginning may be true. This could be one sign of a new generation of more socially responsible scientists.

Despite all of this, animal research is an area where we as a society need to maintain an active and open dialogue. Although animal research is already extensively regulated and the conditions in animal labs are better than ever, we should never be completely satisfied with the status quo, and we need to be ready to address any questions about ethics in research practices that may come up. One of my most severe criticisms of the animal rights movement in Oxford has been that through its tactics and unyielding stance, it has preempted this dialogue from occurring, which seems counterproductive. Although animal research ethics was not the primary topic of the Pro-Test demonstration, it was addressed multiple times, and the goals of Pro-Test appear fully compatible with continuing this dialogue.

Pro-Test’s leadership committee, which consists of about ten individuals, planned the event. Although only two of them are scientists—one a graduate student in chemistry student and the other an undergraduate in biochemistry—they played an integral role in evaluating scientific information and doing research on the topics that were presented at the demonstration. Without them, the protest would have lacked substance. On the other hand, many of the other committee members were able to draw on valuable experience in organizing, demonstrating, and working with the media, and they were essential for the extensive publicity and attendance enjoyed by the event.

Yesterday’s demonstration was a model example of scientific activism, mobilizing hundreds of scientists around a scientific issue, but it also involving members of the general public as well. Its message was positive and geared toward specific goals that should be achievable. The speakers stayed on topic and participants were likely to have learned something. Because of its success, the Pro-Test demonstration could prove to be a turning point in the clash between scientists and animal rights extremists. An event of this nature can only help the cause of science, and it has already succeeded in building a great deal of momentum behind the pro-research cause in Oxford. Now that Pro-Test has already shown itself capable of such powerful scientific activism, if it can live up to the bar that it has already set so high then the future of the new biomedical research center—and Oxford science in general—looks very promising.

6 Comments:

  • Reason again wins out. Thanks for reporting on this event. I've been watching it closely thanks to you and the good work on this blog. We need more people like you expressing the need for science and reason as a basis for policy making. It's a shame that so many people are scientifically illiterate. I'm a science teacher and it is tough to reach students or even other teachers that science and reason are important. It's a daily battle.

    By Anonymous saxa82, at Sun Feb 26, 09:33:00 PM  

  • So, who says computers can't have a sense of humor? After seeing the automatically-generated link to this article from Blogspot, I'm thoroughly convinced that there's some computer out there that's a lot funnier than I'll ever be. "Oxford scientists bite back at animal." Ha! Pure genius... although that wasn't really the message I was going for here....

    By Blogger Nick Anthis, at Sun Feb 26, 11:59:00 PM  

  • Wow, thanks for your detailed account. I enjoyed reading it. Cheers, T.

    By Anonymous Tafadzwa, at Mon Feb 27, 12:11:00 AM  

  • It was heartening to see so many people protesting in favour the lab (although I think the constant talk about animal 'testing' was a little misleading - it is already the case that most people don't know the difference between animal research and drug testing), but I fear that it will not make much difference to the debate overall.

    Essentially the anti-vivisectionists know they're in the minority, and have started to act accordingly - they don't seem to be out to win the debate, they seem to be out to cause sufficient intimidation to win the battle on the ground.

    As a medical scientist, I depend on the animal research to make any sense of my human data, without it most of the body would just be a sack of cells, I couldn't figure out what does what, and thus how they go wrong in human disease.

    As a vegetarian/variably succesful vegan I have some sympathy for the moral arguments against vivisection, but it just makes me so mad to see the arguments about how animal research is useless trotted out over and over again.

    I don't believe that these people can be won over by argument, and whilst spreading the word more widely amongst the public, I think realisation that they cannot win the debate will simply radicalise these people further. Combine that with the willingness (as demonstrated in NI and elsewhere) of young men to dress up and commit violence in the name of a cause, I am not confident for the future.

    By Anonymous RS, at Mon Feb 27, 01:36:00 PM  

  • I was amused to read SPEAK's summary of the event,

    http://www.speakcampaigns.org.uk/news/20060225demo_bravehearts.php

    I've been involved in far lefty protests for years but this is the funniest piece of self-aggrandisement I've seen:

    "Lined up on the opposite side of the road were the world’s media; there to report on a demo that had been organised as a counter demonstration to the SPEAK’s. Despite the over exaggerated media reports the counter demonstration just about matched SPEAK’s in numbers, but that was about all they did and it was clear from the beginning that the counter demonstrators were clearly out of their depth and must have been very deflated by the level of support the animal rights demonstration was receiving from passing members of the public. SPEAK enjoys enormous support from the REAL residents of Oxford, who thankfully don’t believe the media rubbish being churned out recently. It appears that the UK public are becoming wise to the hidden agenda by many in the media."

    "After a short while, having been drowned out by the assembled animal rights protestors, the university’s counter demonstration scuttled back to where they began in Broad Street, where many beat a hasty retreat to the nearest pub. However the animal rights movement are a braver and more determined bunch and despite freezing winds, held the ground in South Parks Rd for a further 2 hrs before marching back to Broad Street in order to take back what is ours."

    By Anonymous RS, at Mon Feb 27, 02:27:00 PM  

  • The animal rights extremists that you painted so negatively are only a miniscule minority and the vast majority of people support animal experimentation and scientific progress. I deplore extremism of any kind but I feel that this protest also preempted the ongoing ethical issues surrounding animal research in such an anthropocentric environment. Although I understand that Oxford scientists were on the defensive from SPEAK and other extremists' intimidation tactics, they were pretty much preaching to the choir. As a firm supporter of both science and animal rights, I believe that striking a balance between animal cruelty/pain and medical advances is a serious component of scientific activism in which both sides should engage.

    By Blogger Epikorean, at Wed Mar 01, 12:40:00 AM  

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