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Animal Experimentation: Facing an Image Problem

Public distrust of scientists may lead to a tightening of animal experimentation regulations in the Netherlands and across Europe.

Is animal experimentation universally frowned upon by the general public? If so, why? Is it because antivivisectionist groups have run a long-standing propaganda campaign? Is it because scientists don't bother to justify themselves, or because scientific bodies are afraid to be open about and to defend the research they fund? Or is the culprit the media, which prefers negative reports for their sensationalism? And what are the consequences for scientists who wish to pursue a career involving the use of animals?

These questions turn out to be more complex than they at first appear. On 15 May, a diverse crowd ranging from scientists and patient interest groups to politicians, animal welfare proponents and media consultants assembled in Eindhoven to try to answer them in a 1-day symposium entitled "Animal Research In the News: Just One Side of the Coin?" The conference was sponsored by the Dutch Association for Laboratory Animal Science (NVP) and the Belgian Council for Laboratory Animal Science (BCLAS), with help from Jan Wolters, a laboratory animal specialist at the Free University, Amsterdam.

Appropriately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, participants were greeted by a rather limp demonstration by the Dutch antivivisectionist organization Een Dier, Een Vriend (An Animal, A Friend) at the main entrance. Shortly afterward, Harry Blom, president of the NVP, raised the issues mentioned above to explain why animal experimentation is wildly unpopular with the general public. But the underlying assumption was challenged by Mark Matfield, director of the UK interest group the Research Defence Society, which has been enlisting professional pollsters (including MORI and the magazine New Scientist) for several years to find out what the British public really think about animal research. (Similar large-scale studies have never been performed in the Netherlands, and would probably be quite useful.)

When Matfield revealed the results, there was palpable surprise amongst the primarily Dutch audience: Over four-fifths of those Britons polled believed animals should be used in research, provided that the medical rationale was serious, that lower organisms (e.g. rodents, not primates) were used, and that suffering was minimized. Interestingly however, only about a fifth said they would trust a scientist who claimed to meet those criteria. These and related studies tell us that proponents of animal research don't need to convince the public that animal experiments are necessary; rather, they must persuade them that scientists can be entrusted to perform them humanely and properly. Scientists, in short, have a serious image problem.

So what is the best strategy to increase public trust? Opinions differed. Rudy de Meester, animal welfare advisor to the Belgian federal government, said that unlike politicians who must be deeply in tune with the feelings of the electorate, scientists are too removed from public opinion, almost "on another planet". Marc Ruitenberg, a young neurobiologist, agreed. He described his personal quest to educate the public about his own research on spinal cord injuries in the hope that "coming down from the Ivory Tower" would counteract negative stereotypes promoted by the antivivisectionists. On the other hand, several other speakers, including Matfield, thought that science communication was a highly skilled task best left to professionals.

Various presenters argued that proponents of animal experimentation should become more media-savvy to fight the antivivisectionist groups on their own ground. Vicky Cowell from the British patient organization Seriously Ill for Medical Research advocated "emotional propaganda", namely countering images of suffering animals with truthful images of suffering patients. Maarten Hidskes, a former journalist and now a science media consultant, favored a more subtle approach. The general public, he believed, would respond well to images of named scientists dealing carefully with animals. Even better, these scientists should admit to feeling emotionally torn about such practices, thereby sending a message that scientists are "flesh and blood" too.

Arguing that opinions are formed at an early age, Ted Griffiths of the UK charity Biomedical Research Education Trust reported that antivivisectionists freely introduce propaganda into British schools in the form of leaflets, videos, and personal presentations. Until his group became active, according to Griffiths, pro-animal experimentalists made little attempt to counteract these views in the classroom with visits and materials supporting the opposite view.

Despite attempts to bolster public trust, working with animals in the Netherlands is growing increasingly difficult, hampering today's scientists and possibly scaring off the next generation altogether. Frank Grosveld, a prominent biologist at the Erasmus University Medical Center, outlined how Dutch restrictions have been tightening steadily since 1997, with proposals currently on the table which threaten to make them even more cumbersome. Pointing out that more paperwork is required to look after an experimental animal than a child in school, he prophesied a mass exodus of scientists from Holland if the laws become any more unwieldy. Grosveld knows what he's talking about: In the 1970s, when fears surrounding the new science of recombinant DNA led to unworkable restrictions, he himself was driven out of the Netherlands.

Mary Rice of the European Biomedical Research Association warned the audience that national legislation was not the only hurdle researchers would have to deal with in the future. The European Parliament is currently considering a revision of the law governing the use of animals for scientific purposes (86/609/EEC), including a proposal to ban the use of primates altogether and to introduce heavier restrictions on the use of transgenic animals. With upcoming European Parliamentary elections and 10 new member states joining in 2004, Rice urged all parties to take an active interest in the wider world to safeguard their ability to perform research on animals in the future.

The conference wasn't all abstract philosophy. Peter Heidt of the Rijswijk Biomedical Primate Research Center, which has been extensively targeted by antivivisectionist groups, entranced the crowd with anecdotes, photos, and practical tips for dealing with aggressive activities ranging from office vandals to people in skull masks terrorizing children through the dining room window. One morning he even awoke to find his entire neighborhood plastered with a picture of his face covered by the crosshairs of a gun--a suggestion, fortunately, that his neighbors knew better than to take literally. The best defense? Keep your sense of humor, lock your doors, and have good contacts with local police and media.

Janne Kuil of the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals was convinced that honest and open dialogue between the two sides was the only way to advance, citing the long-held Dutch tradition of compromise, tolerance, and negotiation. To judge by the buzz during coffee breaks and the after-conference drinks session, the major goal of the organizers, to stimulate debate among various diverse groups with an interest in animal experimentation, was successfully achieved. However, one couldn't help wondering if the majority of the speakers were preaching to the converted. It would have been gratifying to see the message being transmitted to more people holding the dissenting viewpoint: skeptical pet owners, say, or maybe even a few of those hardcore antivivisectionists who'd been demonstrating outside the hotel.

Equally, Wolters, one of the conference organizers, was disappointed that so few biomedical researchers attended, despite the fact that the message of the symposium was "strongly directed especially to them". Perhaps this conspicuous absence was a symptom of the main problem: Scientists are too busy in the Ivory Tower to take time to learn more about how to facilitate their own research in the future.