If I Made My Money Telling Science Horror Stories I'd Be Worried About Open Labs Too

09/04/2014 13:11 BST | Updated 09/07/2014 10:59 BST

I have a slightly peculiar job. My organisation defends scientists against people who agitate for the prohibition of medical, veterinary and environmental research using animals. I mythbust and inform, but cannot tell individuals how they feel about animal research.

Everyone feels different.

The best I can do is get the information out there and let people make up their own minds but the difficulty is we're not operating in an information vacuum - there are plenty of sources of misinformation on this topic. People have an idea in their heads that animal research is all about smoking beagles and tortured monkeys. It's pretty clear why too. Some horrific things were done in the name of science in the 20th Century, and UK society didn't seem to get its ethical bearings until some time in the late 70s. However things did change. A 1986 law made it illegal to use an animal if an alternative was available, and this was followed by bans on testing cosmetics on animals, and using Great Apes. Today, 97% of UK research animals are mice, fish, rats and birds.

Yet every few Saturdays outside my local train station there's a lady there with a trestle table adorned with horrific vintage pictures of dogs and monkeys. I recognise some of them from animal rights leaflets from 1981. I think the experiments took place in 1970s America and many such experiments would be illegal today, in Europe at least.

Walking past the table I can pop into Lush which is apparently "fighting animal testing" despite the fact cosmetics testing's been illegal in the UK since 1998. You also can't sell or import cosmetics or their ingredients in the EU if they've been tested on animals.

We then have the well-intentioned but terminally gullible such as @amazingpicx, which tweeted a picture of a cat rescue with the message "Retweet if you say NO to animal testing." 5,000 Twitter users hit "retweet" without first engaging their brain and the same picture that illustrated the saving and rehoming of 600 cats was retweeted as "animal abuse".

@amazingpicx does know what this is

The importance of context when depicting animal procedures cannot be overstated.

Finally, we have organisations whose incomes wholly or partly derive from campaigning to end scientific, veterinary and medical research using animals. Of the main UK groups, only PETA (UK) is a charity rather than a company. This is because, due to a 1947 ruling, anti-vivisection organisations cannot be charities because, according to the House of Lords, their objectives would lead to harm to humans and animals and thus be "gravely injurious" to the public good.

Of course I'm not claiming animals never suffer in labs - that's why such research is licensed. My point is merely that it's likely that most people have a worse perception about what goes on than is the case in reality. Hence, for me, labs being open about what they're doing, acknowledging suffering, providing context is a fantastic answer to the distortions that surround this issue, and luckily a trend towards openness is gathering pace. Why would we want to form an opinion on the basis of anything but the facts?

Of course, labs becoming more open is a process rather than something achieved with a wave of a wand and openness will develop unevenly depending on where institutions currently are in terms of, say, describing their animal research on their websites, or inviting journalists into the labs. There may also be snags around animal welfare and ensuring animals aren't stressed by unfamiliar visitors, or health and safety. Universities are required to take reasonable steps to protect their staff and students and some of the animal extremists who were attacking labs a few years ago are only now being prosecuted.

However, I think we'll get there. Openness at the end of the day is doing whatever it takes to give the public accurate information on which they can base their moral opinion and there are a few ways to reach that end.

For instance, the prohibition groups are also agitating for an end to "secrecy", which is an allusion to a legal requirement for UK public bodies not to reveal the nature of their work with animals. This requirement is indeed out of step with the notion of openness but is currently being reviewed by the Home Office with a view to removing it, as prohibitionists know full well because it's being done with their full participation.

Between this, individual initiatives on the part of research institutions and the forthcoming Concordat on Openness, where more than 40 of the largest commissioners and practitioners of animal research will commit to increasing openness, things are moving in the right direction.

It came as a surprise, then, that a proto-openness initiative, where we invited local schools into labs was met with scorn by prohibition lobbyists. Animal Aid fired off a letter to the local papers claiming the visits were stage-managed, the students being "Carefully-screened pupils (who must consent to a background check by a security agency, should it be deemed necessary)" who " will be given a tightly-restricted tour of an animal laboratory."

The BUAV went further and penned a whole piece on Huff Po . The visits were "carefully orchestrated PR" they thundered, before claiming that UAR lobbied for greater secrecy in a Select Committee enquiry (our precise words were "We believe that more information about animal research should proactively be made available to the public, while safeguarding information which could be used by extremists to target individuals and institutions" so make if that what you will).

So why are they sneering at progress?

One reason is, to judge by the imaginary plots UAR is periodically accused of orchestrating, is that prohibitionist groups suspect us constantly of tenebrous conspiracy and so openness is all part of a dirty rotten trick. What it actually demonstrates is that they don't understand where we're coming from in the 21st Century. We can't be described with such adolescent cynicism.

Another reason could be that openness could hit revenues. What's the use of spinning a tale of "cruel" science and defenceless puppies if someone's there adding context and pointing out the veterinary benefits of the research? Who would have retweeted the cat picture mentioned earlier as the epitome of evil if an accurate description accompanied it? Who would pay a subscription on that basis?

Maybe openness has prohibitionist groups rattled because, although there'll always be a section of society which refuses animal use for any purpose, it's likely smaller than their current pool of sympathisers.

I would be astonished if a good number of their supporters don't continue to subscribe on the basis of resistance to animal cosmetics testing, for instance. How many would remain resistant to all experiments using cats if they understood that most were used for veterinary research and in all likelihood didn't suffer significantly? How many of their supporters are under the impression that research animals are mainly dogs and cats, rather than mice and fish? How many truly object to mouse breeding, which accounts for half of the experiments in the UK, particularly when it's already given us a treatment for progeria.

Most children with Progeria will be dead by their mid-teens.

Openness not only helps debunk misleading or overblown claims, it can help to nuance the argument to the point that an absolutist position on the use of animals ceases to make any sense. Animal lovers aren't stupid and will understand that, as with the badger TB vaccine, you need to use animals to develop and test medicines if you want to protect a larger number of lives. One can be a compassionate animal lover and still have a practical streak which can support a hard decision for the greater good. If you're a prohibitionist group with an absolutist position on animal research, the openness agenda cannot be good for your sales.