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Science that dare not speak its name

The UK government threatens to defend Oxford's new animal research lab with guns because it can't do it with words.

Josie Appleton

Topics Science & Tech

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Animal rights extremists seem to be holding British science to ransom. Last week, they gained the scalp of Oxford’s new £18million animal research laboratory, after the construction company that was contracted to build it, Walter Lilly, pulled out. Back in January 2004, a new primate research facility that had been planned at Cambridge University was called off. The activists are seen as a formidable force. Science minister Lord Sainsbury is reportedly considering bringing in the army to secure deliveries to the Oxford site, and City companies are thinking of offering bounties for information leading to the convictions of activists (1).

In fact, these aren’t well organised battalions that will stop at nothing. The police estimate that there are only 20 hard-core animal rights activists in the UK who carry out direct action (2). If activists gain successes, it’s perhaps less because of their firepower or organisation than because of the defensiveness of the groups that they take on. It is the scientific community and the government’s somewhat shamefaced approach to animal research that allows activists to make their impact.

It is not the case that Walter Lilly was forced from the Oxford site by violence alone. I was able to find only one mention of serious criminal damage committed by activists – on 30 June, RMC facilities at Thorpe in Surrey were attacked with incendiary devices (RMC was supplying cement to Walter Lilly). In other incidents, subcontractors have had paint thrown on their cars, and there was a bomb scare at a regional Montpellier office (Montpellier is Walter Lilly’s parent company).

But in general, activists relied upon issuing fairly cranky-sounding threats. They sent members of Montpellier’s senior management team letters warning that if they didn’t pull out of the Oxford lab ‘within ONE WEEK a letter about you will be mailed to HUNDREDS of your neighbours. It will…contain a forged criminal record showing a string of sexual offences committed by yourself in your adult life’ (3). This letter was reported as if it was akin to activists holding a gun to managers’ heads.

Animal rightists also apparently sent a letter to shareholders addressed from members of the senior management team, threatening that if they didn’t withdraw their shares within the month their names would be posted on a website, which ‘will prompt activity by the animal rights activists’ (4). This letter doesn’t make sense – why would the management team threaten their own shareholders?

These threats have all the vindictiveness and crankiness of hate mail, and they had their effect. Some of Montpellier’s shareholders were obviously worried enough to do as the letter asked and sell their shares, because the company’s share price quickly fell by 19 per cent. And the overhanging threat meant that subcontractors stopped turning up, which slowed work.

Business interests often pull out when faced with threats from animal activists – some 22 companies severed their links with animal research providers in the first three months of 2004 alone (5). But perhaps this nervous reaction from business is to be expected. It is understandable that cement contractors wouldn’t want to put their money on the line for animal research (or anything else, for that matter) – building new houses or shopping centres might look like a better option. And few shareholders would want to face the consequences for the sake of a project they may never have heard of.

For individuals, the activities of animal rights activists can be intimidating and frightening. But it is the reluctance of the government and scientific community to defend the principle of animal research that provides an opening for activists. The authorities don’t seem willing to stand up and say that research is a moral good – that a human life is worth more than that of an animal, and that the medical benefits of research justify animals’ death and injury.

In the case of the Cambridge primate centre, for example, the government stalled on giving the go-ahead, which contributed to the spiralling costs of the project. Earlier this week the head of the Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology Ian Gibson said that he had refused to go on BBC2’s Newsnight to talk about animal rights groups because he feared that this could make him into a target (6).

The government has sent mixed messages on animal research, which gives sanction to protesters’ views. After being lobbied by the Political Animal Lobby, the Labour Party pension fund withdrew its investment from Huntingdon Life Sciences, citing its reasons as ‘ethical’. New Labour has introduced the strictest regulations for animal experimentation anywhere in the world, emphasising the importance of animal welfare. Meanwhile, its new Animal Welfare Bill takes animal rights further than ever, forbidding fairgrounds from giving away goldfish, for example, and giving pet owners a ‘duty of care’ to provide for their pet’s every need (see Ruining cats and dogs, by Stuart Derbyshire).

Although a few individual scientists have made a strong case for research, Oxford University appeared to share the government’s ambivalence. It has downplayed the new centre, emphasising that it merely concentrates existing facilities and that 98 per cent of the animals housed there will be rodents. The university has also stated its own commitment to animal welfare, saying that ‘all projects are subject to strict ethical approval, which involves lay and external scrutiny’, and ‘all projects are carried out in the best available conditions of animal welfare and housing – hence the new laboratories’ (7).

Given that the university could be putting chemicals in animals’ eyes and electrocuting them, it is difficult for it to pose as a champion of animal welfare – however spacious its kennels. Such an argument just gives fuel to the protests, as this quote from the animal rights group SPEAK shows: ‘Oxford University have been keen to play down the status of this new building…. They must think we were born yesterday…. 31 staff will be transferring from experimental psychology, zoology, physiology, human anatomy and pharmacology: all these departments have been associated with horrific experiments on primates. Add to this the salient fact that none of the existing [departments] are to close and you realise just how deceitful and mealy-mouthed the apologists of animal abuse can be.’ (8)

In the absence of a strong intellectual defence of animal research, activists must feel as if they are kicking at an open door. And every time they make a breakthrough, they are encouraged to go a step further. Dr Simon Festing from the Association for Medical Research Charities tells me that activists are ‘buoyed up’ since the Cambridge centre was called off: ‘they’ve had a success; they are like hyenas and sense a new target.’ Once activists know that they can bring down a research centre they’re going to redouble their efforts, and their tactics might well get nastier.

In this context, the government’s suggestion of using the army to protect the Oxford site rings hollow – as does its proposal of bringing in new laws to target the protesters, which could include making it a criminal offence to demonstrate outside somebody’s house. Here New Labour is trying to use guns to defend something that it is unable to defend with words. Because there is no moral muscle behind its claim that the Oxford lab should go ahead, it is having to do the job with repressive laws and armed guards.

Meanwhile, those individual scientists who do put their heads above the parapet, such as the Medical Research Council’s Colin Blakemore, end up taking all the fire and living their lives under siege. If the government and the scientific establishment put forward more of an argument for animal research this would douse water on protesters’ newfound fire.

(1) £25m reward to beat animal rights groups, Scotsman, 24 July 2004; Army may help Oxford animal lab, BBC News, 21 July 2004

(2) The Times (London), 24 July 2004

(3) WE KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE!, This is Gloucester, 20 July 2004

(4) Montpellier hit by animal rights letter campaign, Daily Telegraph, 22 June 2004

(5) Animal rights extremists targeted, BBC News, 24 July 2004

(6) Animal Rights extremists ‘are terrorists’, Scotsman, 27 July 2004

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Topics Science & Tech

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