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Monkeying around

With official equivocation over animal experiments, it isn't surprising that plans for a world-class primate research lab at Cambridge have been axed.

Helene Guldberg

Topics Science & Tech

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After battling for years to receive UK government approval for its proposal to build a world-class primate neuroscience centre, where it intends to carry out experiments on monkeys’ brains, Cambridge University has now been forced to shelve its plans. The Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, which were due to put money into the facility, are no longer backing it.

At the end of November 2003, after deputy prime minister John Prescott’s decision to approve planning permission, Cambridge pro-vice-chancellor Professor Tony Minson said: ‘The university remains convinced of the national importance of this research to medical advancement. Neurological diseases have a huge worldwide impact and combating these devastating conditions is a major scientific priority.’ (1)

The availability of non-human models with similar neuroanatomical and biochemical properties to humans is vital in progressing our understanding of the brain and for developing new medicines to combat neurological disorders – such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases, and stroke and epilepsy.

The government’s approval for the research centre was therefore welcome, but it clearly came too late. Cambridge University got the go-ahead from the government just days after it revealed that it might have to pull out of the project because of a substantial financial shortfall. The university blamed the rising costs of the project in part on the long delay since planning permission was first sought.

The main problem is that the UK government and the research community have failed to give an unequivocal message of support for animal research. Research on the great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas and orang utans) was banned under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, 1986. The Animals Procedure Committee, which advises the home secretary on matters concerned with the Animals Act says its goal is of ‘minimising, and eventually eliminating primate use and suffering’. As Stuart Derbyshire has pointed out on spiked: ‘[This] implies that it would be in opposition to the planned Cambridge facility.’

With such equivocation from the government and research community, it is not surprising that the centre has failed to go ahead. Many believe the blame lies with a handful of animal rights extremists; in reality the problem stems from a defensiveness at the heart of the government and research establishment. What is needed now is for those who believe in the importance of advancing science to up the stakes and champion animal research as a morally good pursuit.

Read on:

spiked-issue: On animals

(1) See Proposed primate research centre, University of Cambridge, 27 January 2004

(2) Cambridge argues for monkey research, BBC News, 25 November 2002

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Topics Science & Tech

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