What is the benefit of discussing animal research? Or, perhaps a better question is – what is the harm in not talking about using animals in research? After all, the pressures of time and the anxiety of not wanting to attract condemnation are both strong motivations for keeping quiet.
To answer these questions, as part of the recent Forum of Neuroscience conference (FENS), the MDC hosted a satellite event in collaboration with the European Animal Research Association (EARA) on Improving Openness in Animal Research in Germany. The problem with not discussing the role of animal research in science is that it would “leave the ground to extremists,” argues Dr Thomas Kammertöns, a cancer immunology researcher at the MDC. EARA Executive Director, Kirk Leech, supports this position, stating “the public hears the voice of animal activists in one ear and then nothing [about] animal research in the other ear”.
The speakers all agreed that the responsibility for communicating animal research lies primarily with the institutions. Open discussion should be encouraged both internally and externally. However, this is still not norm in most institutions; Leech discussed the preliminary findings of a survey conducted by EARA which suggests that the vast majority of institutional websites have very little information available about the animal research that they do. In general, discussions between institutions and journalists only begin when there is a crisis.
Infiltration and Improvement
This was certainly the case for the Max Planck Society. Dr Andreas Lengeling, Animal Research & Welfare Officer, explained that after one of their institutes in Tübingen was infiltrated and filmed by animal rights activists they launched a whole range of institutional changes. These included a better communication strategy for the Max Planck Society, a revision and improvement of their animal research practices, and educational material on the ethics of animal research.
At the MDC there is already an established policy of being open about the animal research that is undertaken here and communicating the reasons for it. The center is an EARA member since 2014. “This is not lip-service for us. We engage in discussions even if the odds are that it will get very difficult and try to encourage our scientists to do the same”, said Vera Glaßer, who is responsible for the topic at MDC’s communications department.
Nevertheless, Volker Stollorz, Managing Director of the Science Media Center Germany, cautioned that in order to connect effectively with the public, scientists themselves need to talk about the research they do. He urged researchers to “talk about your values, not just facts and figures, and spell out what animals you use”. His rationale for this is that animal rights activists use very emotive arguments and rhetoric, and that can’t be balanced by data alone. It requires individual scientists to tell their stories and give their personal opinions on animal research.
Overall, the key theme of the event was that openness leads to better and more ethical research and increases public understanding of the necessity of animal research, as well as the realities of the scientific process in general. It should not be the aim of such communication to persuade the public that animal research is an unmitigated good, as Kammertöns suggested in his talk: “We should rather convey that it is a difficult topic which deserves a clear, calm, and two-sided debate. Only if scientists openly discuss animal research we can reach our goal: a consensus that the majority of society can support. We need to defend the middle ground.”
Look out for the Animal Research episode of the new Open Science Podcast series of thelaunching in the autumn, where you will be able to hear interviews with all the speakers.