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In wake of attacks, German science bodies fend for animal research

Germany's major research institutes have teamed up to publicly defend “responsible” animal testing as a necessary part of biomedical science. At an event in Berlin today, the organizations launched a new project to educate the public about animal studies, after harsh attacks by animal rights activists in recent years. The 5-year project, called Tierversuche verstehen (Understanding animal testing), is centered around a website providing scientists’ testimonials and background information.

“Responsible means always balancing animal protection and welfare with the importance of scientific knowledge for human beings. Acting responsibly also means developing and using alternative and supplementary methods,” says the website, which encourages researchers to use its materials—such as videos and graphics—in public presentations. It also offers to put interested scientists in touch with the organizers of media training courses, and to add volunteers to a database of researchers willing to respond to press queries.

“Animal experimenters used to do what they wanted, and now they are increasingly under pressure to justify their work,” says Silke Strittmatter of Doctors Against Animal Experiments Germany, an animal rights group in Cologne.

There have been several pointed attacks against researchers who use animals in their experiments in Germany. One example is the case of Nikos Logothetis, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, who decided to end his primate studies last year after national television broadcast footage shot by an undercover animal rights activist that purportedly showed animals being mistreated. The video prompted protests but also led to a police raid at the institute to investigate its animal care practices.

“In the past, we have repeatedly found that set views about animal testing do change, and prejudice does disappear, when we enter a conversation with the public and the media,” says Jörg Hacker, president of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina in Halle, in a statement issued today. One way to win hearts and minds is to organize guided tours of research institutes, says neuroscientist Stefan Treue, the head of the project's steering committee and director of the German Primate Center in Göttingen. Treue's own experience with such tours has been “overwhelmingly positive,” he says. Visitors often leave with a “much better understanding and appreciation for the issues and how we address them.”

More and more research organizations in Europe are pushing back against animal research critics, says a spokesperson for the European Animal Research Association (EARA) in London. In April, 24 research organizations in Belgium, both private and public, issued a joint statement pledging more openness about animal research. Another initiative by Spain's Confederation of Scientific Societies will be unveiled later this month. “This is a movement that has been sparked by decades of pressure against the use of animals in research by animal rights groups,” that will ultimately help “robust research” to progress, the EARA spokesperson says.

Thomas Hartung, director of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, agrees that the public is thirsty for information about this controversial topic. But he deplores that the new website merely seeks to justify animal research and lacks information about the flaws of existing animal tests—such as reproducibility problems and animal suffering. “The progress in recent years in reducing animal testing and introducing modern approaches [such as computer modeling] came from the acknowledgement of the shortcomings of all scientific tools and pursuing evolutionary change of these tools, not from the defense of the methods of the past,” Hartung told ScienceInsider in an email.

“I don't think anybody's clinging to decades-old methods,” Treue counters, adding that the website is still in its infancy and will add information about alternative methods. “All researchers I know develop or tweak alternative approaches to be more effective.”

Rainer Gaertner, head of the activist group Tierversuchsgegner Bundesrepublik Deutschland (the German Association for Opponents of Animal Research) in Berlin, dismisses the new endeavor as mere “propaganda” and “brainwashing” to perpetuate the idea that animal testing is unavoidable and worthy of taxpayers' money. (Two years ago, Gaertner's group published a controversial ad in German broadsheets targeting neuroscientist Andrea Kreiter and his work on the macaque brain.)

The new project is run by an alliance of 10 major research bodies, including the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, the Max Planck Society, and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Germany's main funding agency. A communications agency based in Münster, Germany, produced the website. The new project will cost about €250,000 per year and will be reviewed after 3 years, Treue says.


Correction, 8 September 2016, 6.35 a.m.: This story originally said that Nikos Logothetis had stepped down as director of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics. Logothetis has ended his primate research but is still the institute's director.