One of the biggest recent stories in scientific activism, on this side of the pond at least, is still making waves a week later. Friday’s Guardian
ran an excellent piece on Pro-Test—the pro-research student organization at Oxford—and how it fits into the larger conflict between scientists and animal rights activists. Last Saturday, Pro-Test staged a thousand-strong march
through the streets of Oxford to demonstrate the popular support behind animal experimentation, to educate the public on the nature of animal research, and to protest against the tactics that the animal rights movement has resorted to.
Although the demonstration was a major break in the current battle over Oxford’s plans for a new biomedical research center, its implications extend much further, highlighting an additional step that scientists could take, but rarely do, to build support for their work in some cases. A quote by Iain Simpson, one of the group’s leaders, drives this point home:
"This is about academics feeling under siege and our concern that no one is defending them. For decades scientists have been vilified for conducting necessary animal research that has led to advances that have saved millions of lives. Because no one has spoken out on their behalf, and because they have been too afraid to defend their work, a culture has developed where people are suspicious of what they are doing.
"This started as a local issue, but on a macro scale we hope to turn the tide in terms of animal research. Scientists and academic institutions have been too afraid to engage in the debate and, therefore, have allowed activists to set the agenda. Now I feel it is right to draw a line in the sand and say, 'No more.' We want to get that debate out in the open and win it based on reason."
Interestingly, the Guardian
article picks up on something I noticed at the demonstration as well: it was pretty impressive that Pro-Test succeeded in attracting so many people and so much enthusiasm to what was fundamentally a pro-establishment cause.
These few students are now at the centre of a movement that could have enormous implications for scientific research and for the safety of those involved in it. In some ways this is a strange movement - students campaigning to defend the establishment instead of attempting to bring it down - yet Pro-Test's supporters would argue that it also belongs in the finest traditions of protest: embracing debate and opposing intimidation.
While I marched in the demonstration, my mind wandered back to the anti-war protests I attended in 2002-03. At some of them, I rembered seeing small pro-war counterprotests in response to the rally I was in. I used to wonder—despite knowing that the idea of war held a decent amount of popular support in America at that time—about what would drive someone to actually go out and demonstrate in favor of the status quo, especially if that meant protesting in favor of an invasion that seemed virtually inevitable by that point. (Once, when I was at an anti-war rally in Houston, I saw what instantly became my favorite counterprotest slogan: “Give war a chance.” That only reinforced these feelings.)
Although this dissonance never quite left my mind, it increasingly became clear throughout the rally that Pro-Test’s movement differed considerably from the pro-war cause. In fact, due to its dedication to spreading information, increasing understanding, supporting progress, and challenging violence and intimidation, the pro-research movement is in many ways the antithesis of what the pro-war protesters were trying to achieve. Along these lines, the Guardian
provides several examples of just what kind of tactics animal research advocates are up against:
Yesterday, one victim of intimidation, asking not to be named, described how it feels. "There are death threats by email, or threats to kidnap your children," he said. "They might slash your car tyres or throw paint stripper over it. Then there are telephone threats, some of which threaten violence and others that are strangely polite. And there are letters to your neighbours telling them you are a paedophile or a rapist.
"This brings about enormous psychological pressure on you and your family, but the threats of violence are rarely followed up. Most of it is noise and bluster. But I was attacked on my doorstep one morning and had a substance sprayed into my eyes and then some men began to rough me up. Fortunately, I fell backwards into my hall - in front of my wife and three-year-old daughter. Then they smashed my windows, leaving me lying there covered in glass."
Although actual violence only comes from the more extreme minority of animal rights activists, even the more “mainstream” organization SPEAK, which sponsors the weekly protests at the construction site of the new research center, resorts to underhanded tactics that include intimidation. Apparently, the organization also relies on outright lies to try to get its point across:
The university says that 98% of the research in the lab will be carried out on fish and rodents, with a futher [sic] 2% on higher mammals, and less than 1% on primates. But Speak, a local anti-vivisection group involved in the protests against the development, claims that "whole troupes" of primates will be subject to experiments. Robert Cogswell, Speak's co-founder, says he regards the student group as "irrelevant".
"It is not so much a group of pro-vivisection individuals as a collection of people who simply oppose the animal rights movement," he says, claiming that most of those on Saturday's march (he puts the number at "400 at most") were "hunters in hunting regalia, and there were hardly any students".
"Nevertheless, if they give us someone with whom to debate, I welcome them. We have always wanted a public debate because we feel we can win the argument." He says the group does not condone violence.
I cannot independently validate or refute SPEAK’s claims about the use of primates in the new labs (although I tend to regard the University of Oxford as a more reliable source of information), but there are plenty of other untruths in the previous quote. Although the estimates vary, at least 800 people, and possibly over 1,000, attended the Pro-Test event. Also, the vast majority of participants that I met there were current Oxford students (when I went to a SPEAK protest
, I did not meet a single Oxford student in the crowd). Since actions theoretically speak louder than words, SPEAK has not demonstrated a burning desire to engage in a rational debate on these topics. While I still believe that animal research is a topic that we as a society should maintain an active dialogue on, Pro-Test appears much more agreeable to this dialogue than SPEAK, and the actions of Pro-Test probably have a greater chance of ensuring animal welfare in research labs than the tactics of SPEAK.
Putting the need to counter the animal rights movement aside, can others facing anti-science forces of a different nature in other countries learn anything from what Pro-Test has done in the United Kingdom? I think so. The key point in this case was that the majority of people agreed with the pro-research cause, but they felt that they had been silenced or marginalized by a vocal minority. This situation might sound familiar to those in the U.S. How about the support behind funding embryonic stem cell research
? Taking action against global warming? Teaching evolution? These are all areas where vocal ideologues have hijacked the debate, marginalizing what is otherwise a perfectly mainstream and rational viewpoint.
Of course the U.S. government should fund embryonic stem cell research, and most people agree. In fact, there’s arguably a lot less grey area there than in the battle over animal research, although the parallels between the two are stunning. There’s only one key difference: animal research in the U.K. is still going strong, while embryonic stem cell research in the U.S. is hurting. Badly.
With that in mind, maybe it's time for a good old-fashioned protest. If the scientists plan it, the people will come.