The Scientific Activist (Archives)


Mar 4, 2006

Scientific Activists in Oxford Still Making Headlines

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.


  • Interesting comment. It is good to hear balanced thought about this issue from the scientific perspective.

    All in all I am anti though but would very much like to hear all points of view in what is a fundamentally important debate.

    Animal experimentation is an emotive issue because it seems to cut to the fundamentals of what we think we are and thus how we think we can behave.

    I mean, what gives homo sapiens the right to use other sentient creatures as objects to be experimented on?

    Is it because we are brighter and more powerful (we experiment because it suits our purposes and because we can)?

    Some kind of "Will to Power" justification?

    Is it we because we believe we have a moral right or is it simply because we believe that the subjects of our experiments are other than us, somehow less in the biological hierarchy and are thus are subservient to our needs?

    Perhaps we do so because we believe we are metaphysically superior (the religious, we have souls and they don't argument)?

    Whatever the case there always seems to be an assumption of some sort of assumption of superiority and this always leaves me concerned in so much as this leaves the door open to abuse and degradation of whatever it actually means to be truly human.

    Science cannot ignore these issues. Whenever it does we have terrible travesties of both scientific method and ultimately humanity (vide. the concept of the "untermensch" and the horrors of science gone mad in the 3rd Reich).

    I guess I have some good background for my unease about this question of superiority in that I was brought up in South Africa under apartheid where many people in "power" believed that being black placed you lower on the "hierarchy" than baboons (and after all we can experiment on baboons).

    This form of thought found its' ultimate form of scientific expression in "Project Coast" and I guess we can site numerous other examples, no less horrible, for their facility.

    I'd be interested in the thoughts of the professional philosophers on this issue.

    (Please ignore or delete erroneous entry on previous comment)

    By Blogger Mike Birbeck, at Sat Mar 04, 10:47:00 AM  

  • Thanks for your comment. While I obviously lean toward the more-animal-research side, I think that this is such an important issue with such heavy ethical consequences that we can't afford not to be open about it.

    By Blogger Nick Anthis, at Sat Mar 04, 04:25:00 PM  

  • I think it is interesting that in the UK we have a most definite heirarchy, but note where the line is drawn - no research on great apes, tight controls on primates, mammals and birds regulated in particular, less stringent controls on other vertebrates, little control on insects and other invertebrates (except, strangely, octopus) - and an explicit provision that a cost-benefit analysis must be made (animal's cost, our benefit).

    By Anonymous RS, at Sat Mar 04, 08:49:00 PM  

  • I found this idea a bit shocking, and then realized that that was what made it effective.

    I don't think of scientists as people who March in protest. Maybe a letter of objection, but not a march.

    Then I thought about it some more. There is no reason that mass protest is not available to professionals. If the American Bar Assocation really felt strongly about tort reform they could make a much bigger impact marching (@$200/hr/head) then just signing a letter.

    Something that makes professionals abandon their stations and take to the streets much be compelling. I support animal reserch since it save my mothers live and my own. I also support stem cell research because I fail to see why disposal is more moral when , we allow reserch of full grown human remains. I can see why feeling powerless would make people march

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Mar 05, 04:11:00 PM  

  • I think the main difference between the Pro-War and the Pro-Testing demonstrations is that you agree with one and disagree with the other. In both cases the question is whether some action is a necessary evil, and whether the benefits outweigh the suffering involved.

    By Anonymous Don Cox, at Mon Mar 06, 04:04:00 PM  

  • The use of animals for experimentation may have "saved millions of lives" as is so often quoted. However, I always wonder about its role in the dangerous and fatal paradigm we have created: where humans are in charge and can use the earth and its other creatures for the benefit of humans. This paradigm that we live in, and usually participate in quite thoughtlessly, is going to cost us in the end. It is because of this line of reasoning that we are destroying our planet, at the same time thinking that if we just keep researching we will figure out how to fix it. And still we get further and further away from being able to fix the harm we are doing.

    Have we gone past the point of no return? As the lakes get too polluted to swim in and more and more species die out, is anyone questioning the way we are living? There is something wrong with our big picture of our role on this planet. What behaviors do we have as humans that reinforce our belief that we are entitled to do as we please if it benefits us and how can we change these behaviors?

    We need to redefine our relationship to this planet and our fellow creatures if there is to be any chance of our survival. We "save lives" but at what cost? I am a first year medical student and I am aware that I am entering a field where it is frowned upon to ask questions about the morality of animal research. And trust me when I say that it is most definitely frowned upon. I must read the professors' handouts that mention "lower animals" and the studies that have been carried out in the name of knowledge. And I find it abhorrent and distasteful. What effect does this type of societal norm have on a society's subconscious understanding of how the world works and where we stand in it?

    I worked for the National Cancer Institute on a fellowship, doing cancer research (in the US). Every day I had to throw away at least 2 huge garbage bags of plastics to be incinerated as they were filled with medical waste. All I kept thinking was how much cancer am I causing? And that was just me. Multiply that by all the laboratories around the world burning all their plastics every day. The way it is excused is by saying, that maybe one of those laboratories after years of research may find a drug that works for a certain type of cancer. So it will save lives!!! But in the meantime, we're sending huge quantites of noxious fumes into the atmosphere, undoubtably increasing the odds that people are going to be getting cancer, and at the same time, adding to the destruction of our planet.

    What is this sick cycle? And how do we get out of it?? Because we have to if we're going to make it.

    (It's midterms week, so please excuse any lapses in clarity. And thank you for your time and consideration in listening to my views.)

    By Anonymous Sonia, at Wed Mar 08, 05:44:00 AM  

  • This is a pretty cool story. While I'm generally pretty conservative, it has never made sense to me why people put animal lives above that of humans. True, in some cases they could probably be spared, but in a lot of cases their deaths do save and improve lives.
    It was also cool to hear about the march. Normally your hear about theses things for civil and women's rights, or bags of other reasons, but it is cool to see it for these types of things.

    By Anonymous women's laptop bags, at Sat Jan 13, 07:32:00 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home