Last week, the University of Leicester announced the opening of its new Central Research Facility. If you think this sounds like one of those rather boring press occasions with a ribbon to cut, then you’d be half right. But look closer – a surprise is lurking in the second paragraph of the press release. The Central Research Facility is actually a new building for animal research.
And amazingly, the University press office are shouting about it – good on them! Paragraph three gets straight to the point: ‘Medical research done at the University of Leicester involving animals has a direct relationship with the treatment of patients in hospitals locally and beyond.’ Yes, that’s right. Animal research saves lives. It shouldn’t be a newsflash, but for too many people this still isn’t common knowledge. And without more bold steps like this publicity, this fact will carry on being ignored.The news got picked up on Radio 4’s Today programme, with a great item (at 08.49) that included an interview with the University’s Registrar Dave Hall. He said, ‘I was quite keen that the University was transparent in the research it was undertaking, and justifying the reasons for that research, and demonstrating the very positive impact it’s had on individuals’ lives,’
Professor Mike Barer, Director of Research in the School of Medicine, Biological Sciences and Psychology, pointed out that researchers at Leicester ‘will be using less animals because of the cutting-edge facilities,’ – thanks, for example, to better imaging techniques that allow researchers to scan one animal several times, rather than sacrificing several to get the same information from dissection.
It’s really refreshing to see (and hear) animal research being ‘normalised’ (as Today put it) in this way. Universities and research institutions should be open and honest about the animal research they do, and make its benefits (past and potential future) clear to everyone.
So is this a sign of things to come? Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre, argued in the Guardian that while public attitudes to animal research have changed, scientists are still reluctant to speak out about their work – which is why Leicester’s bold step is so encouraging. Polls show that most people do support animal research to help tackle disease, as long as there is no alternative and it’s properly regulated (conditions that are met and exceeded in the UK).
I felt encouraged reading her piece – yes, we need more scientists to speak out and stand up for their work and for the people who need better treatments, but perhaps the tide is turning. Then I scrolled down to the comments.
I don’t know why I bothered – I knew what I would find. The first comment said (among other things), ‘Like the arms trade or drugs trade, the vivisection trade is a powerful global industry with wealthy backers and will out live us all.’ Other more sensible thoughts did follow, but the comment threads on articles like this one illustrate the problem perfectly.
There are always animal rights campaigners and activists ready and waiting to spew bile and lies about animal research. Some may have sensible arguments – it’s right that we should try to reduce the number of animals used in research, for example. But others are happy to ignore the facts and the evidence and make ludicrous statements claiming that animal research has never benefited anyone. If scientists and institutions like Leicester don’t make their voices heard, these are the only ‘facts’ that will ever reach most of the public.
I was really disappointed that the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection was given the last word on the Today programme, saying that ‘there’s no evidence the appalling suffering inflicted on laboratory animals is producing any meaningful benefit for humankind’. They conveniently ignore research that’s brought hope to patients with cancer, AIDS, other illnesses that really do cause appalling suffering.
In some ways, medical research is a victim of its own success. People in the Western world don’t often see the horrors of infectious disease. Thanks to science and animal research, they’re protected from illnesses that could have killed them a century ago. It’s easy to say animal research isn’t necessary when already have the means to defeat many terrible diseases.
Scientists need to make sure they fight their corner. People affected by life-changing illnesses can see the need for progress – and so can most others if they look a little closer. Researchers can help them to do that. One day, I hope we won’t need animal research. But until then people need to understand why it is necessary, and realise that every one of us has benefited from it.