An article in the Wall Street Journal notes the collision between researchers’ interests in personal safety and the public’s right to know how its money is being spent — specifically, when that money funds research that involves animals:
The University of California was sued last summer by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group that advocates eliminating the use of animals in research, to obtain records involving experiments. In its complaint, the group said “only through access to the records…can it be determined how public funds are being spent and how animals are being treated.”
The university argued to keep the records private, saying in court documents that the request came amid “a rising wave of harassment, threats and criminal violence perpetrated by extremist organizations.”
The violence against researchers includes an incident a year ago in which protesters burst into a University of California, Santa Cruz, scientist’s home during a child’s birthday party. In another incident in August, a UC Santa Cruz biologist and his family fled from a second-floor window when his house filled with smoke from a firebomb.
Both the physicians group and PETA say they don’t condone violence.
Christopher Patti, a lawyer for the University of California system, says the university used to liberally disclose details until it saw information repeatedly used to target researchers. “We’ve tried to adjust our practices to balance safety and public disclosure,” he says.
State Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch ruled the University of California records should be released, but allowed them to be heavily redacted. Researchers’ names, laboratory floor plans and other information were blacked out.
Though the Physicians Committee technically won the suit — the university agreed to cover some legal fees — it said the redacted documents were unusable. Violent acts against researchers are extremely rare, says Dan Kinburn, the group’s general counsel. “The fact that a few crazy people might do criminal things shouldn’t interfere with the rights of the overwhelming law-abiding majority.”
First, it’s important to recognize that there are legitimate interests on both sides.
Scientists whose research is supported by public funds are accountable to the public — to do the research they were funded to do, to report the results of that research so that the knowledge generated benefits the public, and to conduct research that abides by the prevailing rules and regulations, including rules and regulations for animal care and use. The public has an interest in seeing that public funds are not misspent. And, the public has an expressed interest (enshrined in laws like the Animal Welfare Act) in seeing that animals are not treated inhumanely.
But scientists, who are working very hard to create a reliable body of knowledge and are working to do so in a way that conforms to the prevailing rules and regulations, have an interest in living their lives free from threats to their safety or the safety of their loved ones. That scientists are accountable to the public does not mean that their protocols are subject to the approval of any random member of the public. There are established mechanisms by which scientists demonstrate that they are taking proper care to treat the animals used in their research humanely, reducing the number of animals used as much as possible while still generating meaningful data, replacing animals in experiments where possible, and refining experimental techniques to minimize animal distress and discomfort. The most immediate mechanism is the researcher’s interaction with the IACUC (institutional animal care and use committee), a body set up to include not only a non-scientist member but also a member unaffiliated with the institution who represents the interests of the public.
In other words, there are regulations in place and there are mechanisms to ensure that scientific research abides by those regulations. If members of the public are concerned that scientists aren’t following the rules, they should be vocal in their support of the mechanisms that exist to make sure the rules are followed. If they believe that these mechanisms are insufficient, they should lobby for better mechanisms (at which point, they should be prepared to present a compelling argument as to why the existing mechanisms are not enough). If they believe the prevailing rules are too lax, they should lobby their lawmakers to change those rules (while, of course, respecting the rights of scientists and other members of the public who enjoy the benefits of scientific research to lobby their lawmakers). None of these strategies for protecting the public’s interests requires violence or harassment.
Nor, as far as I can tell, does any of them require that members of the public be provided with detailed information about which researchers are working with which animals, about where their labs or the animal care facilities are located, nor about researchers’ home addresses. Rest assured, the IACUC has the relevant information (in part so that they can contact researchers in case of emergency and make arrangements for proper animal care should there be a physical plant crisis), and the federal agencies that oversee animal use in research do, too.
So, I can’t help but wonder why PETA and PCRM want documents with details like researchers’ names and laboratory floor plans. But, given that the release of documents that included such information led to the use of such information to target researchers with harassment, it makes complete sense that universities would redact this information.
It seems to me that if animal rights groups like PETA and PCRM feel they have an interest in (or a right to) such information, they need to explain why, in detail. How exactly do they plan to use such information? What are they unable to do in the absence of this information? Does their interest in conducting whatever activities they might want to conduct with this information outweigh a researchers’ interest in not finding a firebomb on her front step?
Indeed, if it’s the case that PETA and PCRM are opposed to violence directed against researchers, then it seems to me that, in the interests of furthering their own arguments, they have a duty to protect researchers from such violence. Animal rights groups who decry violence against researchers should put their money where their mouth is and be on the front lines protecting researchers from attacks whether in their labs, at their homes, or in the community.
Once we see PETA and PCRM organizing the equivalent of clinic escorts to protect researchers from attacks, then I might believe that they really view violence against researchers as a bad thing and are confident they can make their case on the merits. In the meantime, given that there are mechanisms by which researchers must communicate to committees and agencies acting on the behalf of the public, individual requests for detailed information can’t be presumed to outweigh the law-abiding scientist’s interest in not being harmed.