Ten years ago today (25 February), on a cold Saturday morning in Oxford, I was standing in Oxford city centre watching hundreds of people congregate to rally - not against - but in favour of constructing a new animal research laboratory at the University of Oxford. The crowd included students angered by the intimidation tactics of Oxford's animal rights activists, patients whose lives had been saved by treatments developed using animal research, world-class researchers wanting to defend the importance of their work, and me - a 16-year-old school-dropout with a passion for biomedical science. Together we formed the first demonstration of Pro-Test ; the world's first grass-roots pro-animal-research campaign group, which I founded only a few short weeks earlier.
The march went ahead - despite threats from animal rights extremists to disrupt it - and was followed by several more, along with dozens of media appearances, articles, and debates, raising the public profile of animal research. The Oxford Biomedical Sciences facility was completed, enabling some great research to be undertaken, and scientists were afforded a platform from which they could educate the public about the necessity of using animals in biomedical research. Since then, Pro-Test has served as a banner for other groups around the world - in Italy, California and Germany - to fly in support of life-saving research.
My colleagues and I started Pro-Test because we believed that the use of animals in science is vital for the continuation of medical progress, and the decade that has passed since that first demonstration has not reduced my confidence in this. Since then, I have debated many members of the animal rights movement, have read extensively through the scientific literature, have obtained an undergraduate degree in Physiology and a masters in Neuroscience, and have personally undertaken animal-based experiments at the Oxford laboratory. This experience has deepened my appreciation for the value of high-quality welfare in animal research, from both an ethical and scientific perspective. It has improved my understanding of the limitations that animal-based research methods have (along with the limitations of non-animal methods). But it has also reinforced my opinion that the future of medicine would be very bleak indeed if it weren't for scientists' ability to make use of animals in their experiments.
Broadly speaking, the British public agrees with me - 68% of adults support animal research provided it's for medical purposes and there's no alternative, according to a recent Ipsos MORI poll . Unfortunately, people are still quite confused as to the true nature of animal research; awareness of the "three Rs" principles of use of animals in research ("reduce", "refine", "replace") is very low, many people report knowing very little about animal research in the UK, and 31% of the respondents believed that testing of cosmetics on animals is legal (it is illegal to use animals to test cosmetics or their ingredients anywhere in the EU). This confusion probably results from a combination of misinformation propagated by some animal rights groups who value their ideological agenda above evidence, alongside the relative complexity and nuance of the topic, which lends itself to misunderstandings. Groups such as Understanding Animal Research and Speaking of Research have provided excellent resources for the public to better grasp the importance of this area, but such advocacy work is difficult on a limited budget.
Britain hosts some of the highest-impact biomedical research in the world, with some excellent programmes underway to find replacements and refinements for animal-based tests, and among the most stringent controls on animal welfare in research. Universities and other organisations that perform animal research are more open than ever about their work, as evidenced by the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research in the UK. However, despite the efforts of Pro-Test and similar groups, animal research is still under attack. Several animal rights groups have been successful in their efforts to intimidate transport companies into refusing to import primates for research, resulting in substantial difficulties for scientists who require non-human primates - often to study diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
Ten years on from Pro-Test's first march, I feel that we had some success in spreading the message of how important animal research is. Clearly there is still work to do, though, and scientists should not get complacent when it comes to engaging with the public about the work they do. I hope that the next decade will see a continuation of scientists being more open, and the public gaining more understanding, about research involving animals.