For those who have been following the activities of “animal rights” activists, including their attacks of the homes of researchers — and the reticence of the public in the face of such violent attacks — a recent Commentary in Biological Psychiatry  will be of interest. In it, a number of scientists call on their scientific peers to actively engage in dialogue with the public about what scientific research with animals actually involves and why it is important.
From the commentary:
The attacks are horribly misguided. It is impossible to reconcile the willingness of these terrorists to harm humans, particularly people who are working to alleviate human suffering, with their contention that they value life of all kinds. Scientists, like Dr. London, care about the primates that they study. Scientists are partners with other interested groups in the ongoing international effort to improve the principles and practices governing animal research (briefly reviewed at http://www.nabr.org/pdf/orange.pdf). This peaceful and collaborative process is critical to preserve in the face of the recent violence.
We need to support our colleagues and to work to preserve the integrity of the mission of alleviating human suffering through biomedical research involving animals. In so doing, we might help to ensure that these attacks upon scientists do not discourage much-needed research by demoralizing scientists or by stimulating institutions to adopt overly burdensome administrative practices. The recent events at UCLA make clear that diligently improving the ethical standards for primate research procedures is not, by itself, sufficient to prevent attacks. It is encouraging, for example, that on February 22, 2008, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge issued a restraining order against the Animal Liberation Brigade, the Animal Liberation Front, and UCLA Primate Freedom Project that created a protective buffer zone around the homes of UCLA research faculty members.
These terrorist acts might intimidate people and institutions that would otherwise speak out in support of nonhuman primate research and against terrorism. By failing to take public action, we contribute to the isolation of the scientists involved and the institutions in which they work. Frustration with the absence of a vigorous public response to recent terrorist attacks led Robert Palazzo, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland to ask, “Where’s the noise on this?” Several organizations, such as the Society for Neuroscience (http://www.sfn.org), the National Association for Biomedical Research (http://www.nabr.org), and the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (http://www.acnp.org), are helping to educate the public on these issues. There are growing opportunities for animal research advocacy. The failure to publicly address the crimes against its faculty was initially a problem at UCLA, but this institution now is at the vanguard of protecting its scientists and speaking out on behalf of medical research. In addition, the Society for Neuroscience has issued a report on “Best Practices for Protecting Researchers and Research” to assist investigators and institutions targeted by terrorists (http://www.sfn.org/skins/main/pdf/gpa/Best_Practices_for_Protecting.pdf).
We’ve covered some of this ground before. You can’t persuasively profess that you care for all animals if you’re mounting physical attacks on the animals who practice science. Moreover, adopting tactics that involve physical attacks to make your point make it look at least likely that you’ve given up on making your point by actually engaging in a dialogue with scientists or with the larger public.
Reasoning with ALF probably isn’t a winning strategy. But what this commentary calls for is speaking to the public. Not only can members of the public make reasonable assessments of their own interests when given the chance to do so, but they may have a view as to whether intimidation by animal rights activists is a good way for scientists and institutions to decide what research to pursue.
In some ways, this may be the case of the public not thinking very much about where scientific knowledge comes from. It seems magically to appear on the shelf, wrapped in plastic on its little Styrofoam tray — kind of like meat in the supermarket. The public can value a product while keeping itself innocent of the process that generated that product. Indeed, arguably the public’s disconnection is greater when it comes to scientific knowledge, given that people generally leave it to others (doctors, policy makers, etc.) to apply that scientific knowledge for us.
Demystifying where the knowledge comes from, and how it matters to the lives of ordinary people, is something scientists can do. Explaining the ways animal use is essential to producing this knowledge — and why in vitro work, computer modeling, or even work with animals that the average American would classify as vermin if they turned up in the kitchen cannot be substituted without losing some of the knowledge scientists are trying to establish — puts non-scientists in a better place to evaluate whether animal use is defensible. Being clear to the public about the regulatory mechanisms in place to ensure animal welfare and the personal efforts scientists make to show care for the animals used in their research can help dispel the impression that scientists are cold, emotionless fiends who are either unable to care for animals or who actually take pleasure in causing animals distress.
This commentary is a recognition that it is not individual scientists that are under attack, but the community of scientists who see animal experimentation as necessary to their work. It is also a recognition that the public need not be aligned against scientific progress here. Rather, communication with the public can help non-scientists better understand where their interests and the scientists’ are connected.
 John H. Krystal et al., “It Is Time to Take a Stand for Medical Research and Against Terrorism Targeting Medical Scientists,” Biol. Psychiatry 2008; 63: 725-727