There’s a long list of things that scientists do that are unpopular. The creation/evolution argument rages on, the stem cell fight still provokes legislative skirmishes, genetic research raises discrimination concerns, neuroscience questions the very sense of self, and that’s just the tip of the research iceberg. In broader science culture, there’s nuclear energy, Yucca mountain, wind turbine locations, navy sonar, ballistic missile defense, wildlife habitat preservation, the space program, oil exploration, public funding…
But as far as I can tell, there’s only one research subject that has a real chance of getting a scientist murdered. From the New York Times:
The police and federal authorities are investigating firebombings at the homes of two researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The attacks, which the university described as “antiscience violence,” occurred nearly simultaneously before dawn on Saturday, just days after the police in Santa Cruz discovered pamphlets in a coffee shop warning of attacks against “animal abusers everywhere.” The pamphlets included the names, addresses and other personal information of several researchers at the university, according to a news release put out on Friday by the university.
Yep, animal research. Most unpopular research will generate angry letters and the occasional odd threat, but animal research can and does get your lab burned down – or in this case your home burned with you in it.
What’s to be done about it? Obviously the police will try to find and prosecute the arsonists, but that doesn’t really do much good after the fact. Were I an animal researcher, I might try a few things.
The first would be to avoid animal research if it wasn’t strictly necessary. I’m sure most researchers already do this. Scientists are human beings, and they don’t want to cause harm to an animal unless it’s absolutely unavoidable. While it might not change the minds of radical activists, taking as good care of the animals is both good on its own merit and likely to improve public perception of such research.
The second is to pay attention to security practices at the lab even when there’s no obvious risk. Scientists train for many years to master their fields, and so do security professionals. Use some of that grant money to hire a professional and make sure the lab is very secure. I suspect this is already done in high-risk areas like the UC biology department, but security can still be lax elsewhere. My freshman year as an undergraduate saw a massive burglary and vandalism to an animal research lab on campus, doing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage. The place is much better monitored now, but the damage was done.
Finally, and I realize that many people will choose not to make this decision, but consider self-defense.
The university described the attacks as the latest in a series of threats and provocations from those opposed to “biomedical research using animals,” including a February incident in which several masked intruders entered a researcher’s home. After a confrontation, the intruders fled. That incident followed harassing phone calls and vandalism of researchers’ homes, the university said.
To me, this simply isn’t acceptable. Either you quit your research and find a less dangerous line of work, or you protect yourself. Any other option just leaves you and your family in danger. California’s laws in particular are not ideal from a self-defense perspective, but they are better than nothing. Scientists owe it to their profession to not let such violence stand. Resist with force or get out of the game.
Back to the physics tomorrow morning.