Germany must better explain the scientific use of animals to remain a major biomedical force.
Ten years ago, researchers using animals in Britain found themselves in a particularly hostile environment. A campaign of intimidation and violence by animal-rights extremists had spun out of control. The London-based lobby group Understanding Animal Research — a historic organization founded in 1908 — responded with a counter-campaign of its own that, in 2005, smoothed the introduction of laws giving the police increased powers to stop extremists from harassing scientists and from harming animal-research organizations.
Scientists in Germany have not yet experienced such a degree of violence, although the potential is there. In one incident in Munich, activists rented billboard space to display the name, home address and telephone number of a scientist whose research involved animals. In another, they distributed flyers describing a local researcher as a killer and torturer. Similar or worse incidents have occurred in other cities such as Bremen and Tübingen, where biomedical research is particularly strong.
Biomedical scientists in Germany perceive a separate crisis — increasing legislative restrictions that make it more difficult to carry out animal experiments. Hearing little to the contrary from researchers themselves, the public tends to assume that animal experiments are an unnecessary evil, so politicians respond with more restrictions.
That problem was a major motivation for the Basel Declaration — drafted and signed at a meeting in Basel, Switzerland, last week (see page 742). Its signatories pledge to engage in open debate with the public about their work on animal experiments, to stress the high ethical standards to which they adhere and to explain why they have to do it. They intend, for example, to visit local schools or to mention that their research used animals when speaking to the press about new results. Germany does not have a national organization such as Understanding Animal Research to manage and maintain this public outreach. Now is the time that it should.
During the UK crisis, Understanding Animal Research used the momentum of the campaign against extremist violence to engage British scientists to establish a public dialogue. Education on the medical value of animal research helped to dismantle knee-jerk public sympathy for animal-rights campaigns and encouraged politicians to act.
The animal issue has an intrinsically emotive nature and is never going to go away.
In the 1990s, the pharmaceutical industry largely abandoned Germany as a research base, put off by restrictions on genetic technologies and the use of animals. Today the country is a leader in biomedical research, and red tape around genetic technologies has been significantly reduced. Yet the animal issue remains sensitive. Scientists there have tended to keep their heads down and hope for the best. But they should fear the worst: a crisis such as that in Britain could arise at any time. Some of the five main German research organizations, such as the Max Planck Society, which runs 80 research institutes in different disciplines, and the DFG, Germany's main research-granting agency, acknowledge the animal-experiment problem and have small offices that monitor legislative activities. But they do not engage in significant public outreach.
The solution must be a single, non-partisan national office that can implement the principles of the Basel Declaration. It need not be large — Understanding Animal Research has only nine staff — but it needs to be professional. Busy researchers do not have the time or the lobbying skills to organize long-term concerted action. Who should pay? When it comes to the defence of research in Germany in general, the research organizations and universities band together as the formidable Alliance of German Science Organizations — the 'Allianz'. Successive governments have deferred to it, and have committed to long-term funding increases even in times of financial crisis.
The Allianz is the appropriate body to create and fund a German organization analogous to Understanding Animal Research. Including industry might breed distrust. The Basel Declaration has shown that animal researchers in Germany are willing to go public. A small investment by all members of the Allianz would bolster this new solidarity and serve as insurance for Germany's biomedical effort and for the new biomedical industries that are springing up.
The animal issue has an intrinsically emotive nature and is never going to go away. To keep the public ignorant of the benefits of animal research — without which it is currently impossible to develop any new therapies — was never a solution.
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Animal instinct. Nature 468, 731–732 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/468731b