Nature | Editorial

Challenging times

A European initiative to ban animal research has galvanized resistance.

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The Stop Vivisection initiative has been panicking European researchers since it was first proposed in 2012, but its long-trailed public hearing this week at the European Parliament in Brussels turned out to be a pretty grey affair.

The duo who presented the initiative — which calls for the replacement of the 2010 European Union (EU) directive on the use of animals in scientific research with legislation banning all animal research — spoke calmly but unconvincingly. Their extremist claims, that animal models have no predictive value for human disease, drew thin and only occasional ripples of agreement from a cluster of supporters seated at the back of the half-filled auditorium.

The hearing was part of the EU’s move to expand direct democracy by introducing European Citizens’ Initiatives, which allow individuals to launch requests for legislation. A proposed initiative that collects at least one million signatures from at least seven EU countries wins the right to a public hearing in the Brussels parliament and obliges the European Commission to consider whether new legislation is warranted.

As Kay Davies, an animal researcher at the University of Oxford, UK, wrote in Nature last week, in this case, it is not (see Nature 521, 7; 2015).

For too long, activists have been left to dominate animal-research debates in many European countries. Their frequently inaccurate declarations — along with their not-infrequent physical attacks and death threats — have gone largely unchallenged by the scientific community and by the agencies and politicians who support the community’s work. This has been slowly changing in the past few years, mostly thanks to the efforts of UK-based scientists and science organizations, who have emerged from their bunkers to set the record straight.

Germany, despite its status as one of Europe’s major scientific power­houses, has lagged behind in this effort. But a recent incident has sparked a remarkable change — one that should shore up support to protect the EU directive.

One of the country’s top neuroscientists, Nikos Logothetis, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, last month gave up a long and painful struggle to maintain his primate laboratory, which had been targeted by animal activists. Unable to handle the death threats and insults to himself and his family, on 22 April he told local authorities who handle licences for animal experimentation that he would wind down his primate work and continue his work on rats only. This would mean reducing the scope of his research questions to levels still valuable for understanding general principles of neuronal action, but no longer directly translatable to human investigations.

“For too long, activists have been left to dominate animal-research debates in many European countries.”

Logothetis’s problems began last September, when a German television channel aired a documentary using footage of his macaque monkeys secretly filmed by an animal-activist infiltrator. It seemed to show maltreatment of the animals. The resulting scandal led to a series of investigations that exonerated him and suggested that the behaviour of the monkeys had been staged for the camera. A police investigation is still going on.

His decision to quit primate work dismayed many of his colleagues, and so did its timing. Coming so close to this week’s public hearing, they feared that it would be presented as a victory for the Stop Vivisection proponents. But something quite different happened: a swell of support for Logothetis and the type of primate research he carries out.

First, politicians at the highest levels reacted with unprecedented speed and clarity to mount an unambiguous defence of the scientific use of non-human primate research. The research minister in the state government of Baden-Württemberg, where Tübingen is located, condemned as cynical and exploitative the wild claims that Logothetis’s decision implied that research with monkeys was not after all necessary. The federal research minister stated that such research was still crucial for developing treatments for brain disorders such as dementias.

And a new policy of the Max Planck Society to be more open about its animal research showed its teeth. On 30 April, the society released astatement of regret about Logothetis’s decision and confirmed its own commitment to continue supporting research using non-human primates. The society’s president, Martin Stratmann, a materials scientist who took office last year and who has selected the handling of the animal issue as a priority for 2015, spoke out to pledge greater protection of its researchers against attack. At the grass roots, colleagues in Tübingen launched a petition to support Logothetis that has received more than 4,000 signatures from scientists around the world.

This outspoken support has been echoed elsewhere. Parliamentary debates on animal research in Italy this week, where animal groups have been particularly active in the past few years, questioned rather than accepted animal-activist claims. Sixteen European Nobel laureates published an open letter in UK and German newspapers to rebut the Stop Vivisection campaign, joining a similar statement by 149 major research organizations and patient groups.

The European Parliament has until 3 June to decide what to do. It should listen to the loud and unified voice of the continent’s scientists, and then do precisely nothing.

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
521,
Pages:
125–126
Date published:
()
DOI:
doi:10.1038/521125b

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