A woman with a rolled up poster approaches the entrance of the Hermann von Helmholtz House in a determined manner. “Can I help you?” she’s asked. The woman hesitates briefly, allowing her gaze to wander over about 120 people who have gathered on the lawn in front of the building, before asking, “Oh, is this the counter-demonstration?” She immediately turns around and returns to her group. About 15 opponents of animal experiments line up silently about ten meters away and unroll banners. “Do we need to know how long naked mole rats can do without oxygen?” reads one banner.
For the organization Doctors Against Animal Experiments, this is a rhetorical question. In a populist online poll it had decided that MDC researcher Gary Lewin deserved a “heart of stone” for his “absurd” experiments. The organization deliberately overlooked the fact that the research team conducted the study to find out why naked mole rats can withstand oxygen deficiency without damage – while in humans oxygen deficiency caused by a heart attack or stroke can have devastating consequences for the cells in the heart and brain. It also ignored the fact that the team had discovered a previously unknown protective mechanism in the naked mole rats. It did not even take note of the fact that the part of the experiments it criticized had not even taken place in Berlin. This did not fit its hypothesis. In science such an approach is frowned upon as “cherry-picking.”
A sign of solidarity
The fact that a colleague’s work had been grossly distorted and that he had been personally subjected to defamation was unacceptable to employees from all areas of the MDC – respected researchers as well as doctoral and postdoctoral students, administrative staff and staff from the animal facilities. Instead of staying in their laboratories and offices, they approached the opponents of animal testing. And they brought signs with them, too. “Ask me,” “Ready to talk,” and “Let's talk” were written on them. They wanted to show solidarity with a colleague who had been personally attacked by the campaign as well as defend basic biomedical research.
The MDC has been communicating transparently about animal experiments for years. Facing criticism is, after all, an essential part of science. However, after being the target of a defamation campaign, offering to engage in dialogue isn’t an obvious course of action to take. Nevertheless, the MDC’s staff tried to do just that. “No one ever talks to us,” said one opponent of animal testing and was already involved in a conversation. Some of the protesters didn’t want to hear any arguments, while others were surprised that the researchers spend only a small part of their time on animal experiments and have long been working with, for example, organoids or bioinformatics methods and are developing them further.
MDC’s employees had planned to hold a big discussion in the canteen afterwards. The guests declined the invitation. There are too many researchers, they said, adding that the discussion would be unbalanced and that they didn't have any more time. Silently the demonstrators wrapped up the stone sculpture, filmed outside the campus for a while, and got into their cars.