How to Talk About Animal Research

03/12/2015 15:16 GMT | Updated 01/12/2016 10:12 GMT

I took my job at Understanding Animal Research for a couple of reasons. Firstly, whilst researching this topic for a minister, I became aware of how much campaign groups like to skew the truth and I think the public deserves better information. Secondly, I took the job because it's the pinnacle of difficult communications. Think for a moment about things that are difficult to communicate - maybe mooting a new housing estate or removing the stigma from mental health issues - and they might have an emotional element, a complexity problem, a void of public understanding or even might play into popular stereotypes. The topic of animal research has all of them.

Science is inherently difficult to communicate - and is easily misrepresented since so much of it lies beyond the general knowledge of typical members of the public. The media plays its part in this too, suffering from false balance, where an expert in a field is put up against any yahoo with an opinion to "debate" a topic. It is this fixation on contrasting adversarial positions which allows many misconceptions to flourish. What makes this a particular joke where science is involved is that one side has all the evidence.

Scientific fact is not determined by holding a "debate".

The finest example of this isn't anything to do with animal research, but pertains to the opening of the Large Hadron Collider. There were very real concerns about building anything that expensive when we've yet to crack things like child poverty, but who did the media approach for an opinion? They approached a retired chemist who was sure a quasar would consume the Earth if the LHC were switched on.

So there we had it. Physicists, experts in their field, versus de facto laymen who were misunderstanding physics and each side was given equal billing by the media.

I often feel that this is the case with animal research. Recently, a Green Party politician wrote in the Belfast Telegraph about the need to move away from animal models to "plant-based alternatives". One can almost hear researchers across the world saying "What?!" No such thing exists.

A more general meme that is still gleefully deployed by campaign groups is that there are "modern alternatives to animals". Presumably inspired by the whizzy computers in NCIS, heartburn relief adverts, or maybe the movie "Innerspace", this meme imagines that we have the computing power and indeed knowledge of how biological processes work, to build a computer model of the human body, or a culture of cells in a petri dish is close enough to modelling the complexities of a living creature. In the UK it's easily answered: it's illegal to use an animal if there's an alternative. Do the people repeating this meme know they're wrong and say it anyway?

The future of animal rights misdirection seems to be another area that's easy to fool laypeople with: statistics. The utility of this approach to campaigners is you do not have to cook the books too much. Using the wrong statistical model tends to do the legwork for you, or indeed the correct model dishonestly. One author, for instance, spends chapters of his book laboriously explaining how the equations behind 'systems theory' produce an output from an input without acknowledging that we don't have the data to input. In fact that's often the data we're looking for.

All of this goes a long way towards fooling the public, particularly those who want to believe that animals are "treated cruelly in unnecessary experiments" and are really looking for confirmation of what they want to be true. Polling by MORI revealed that 31% of people think animals are used to test cosmetics or their ingredients, a practice that has been illegal since 1998. We have a long way to go to clear the air and a fraction of the resources of the main anti-research groups.

So we have a generally poor public understanding of the realities of animal research and people willing to misrepresent it, which means that talking about animal research doesn't occur in a vacuum. People already have, sometimes strongly-held, beliefs about the topic, even in the face of all evidence. Before we can have any sensible ethical conversation, we must mythbust.

This means that our communications must often be structured in a way that confronts the biggest myths head on. Top of the pile has to be that there are "modern alternatives" for all animal research, so we must make it clear right off the bat that this simply isn't the case. It is also widely believed that many research animals are dogs, when they constitute well less than 1% of research subjects, so we point out that most are mice, and half of experiments are about breeding mice.

However, most helpful is if we do not shy away from what is happening in research and instead explain why it is occurring. Animals are potentially suffering and it is right to acknowledge that in full, but they are also not suffering for no reason. Granted, they are likely suffering less than the general public already believe them to be. The man in the street already thinks that chopping up dogs for human medicine is the norm, when it's very much the exception and the reality is usually more mundane: perhaps a dose of a potential new medicine or a minor surgical procedure (with the appropriate anaesthetics and painkillers). However, the bottom line is the public deserves straight information free from the exaggerations, misrepresentations and speculation that campaigners use to obfuscate this issue. It is then, with costs and benefits honestly explained, that individuals can make their own mind up as to whether various types of research are acceptable to them.

The end goal is to explain why the research is being undertaken. It may seem obvious to researchers why they are doing what they do, but it's easy for the public to get the wrong end of the stick.

This is an issue with many different areas of science. I know of GM seed researchers, excited at their contribution to creating a crop that needs less water and fewer pesticides than traditional seeds. Feeding an expanding population is a real challenge and protecting the natural world will require such measures if we are to limit the spread of farmland and the alien compounds we introduce to stave off crop blight.

Yet some see this technology as "Frankenfood" despite the fact humans have been cross-breeding species for as long as we've been farming, with far less knowledge of the potential consequences. It's only when people hear the whole story that they understand why a scientist might be doing what they are doing and, indeed, understand that there is a cost to inaction. There may be slim risks to GM, but they are far less probable than water shortages and starvation, just as the risk of an adverse reaction from a vaccination is far less than the chance of catching the disease it protects against.

As effective as mythbusting can be, the best way to talk about animal research is openly and before activists have a chance to cherry-pick fears about the research, or its costs alone, for fun and profit. Only by taking a proactive approach are scientists able to tell their story with context and motives intact. When "animal rights" activists tell half a story, one is left using up valuable airtime correcting their mischievous misconceptions, rather giving the public the unvarnished information they so richly deserve.

More infomation: Concordat on Openess on animal research