Nature | Editorial

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German research organizations need to help their workers to defend animal research.

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Last year, an animal activist code-named Pawel got a job as an animal carer at one of Germany’s leading neuroscience laboratories. Pawel stayed at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen for more than six months, secretly filming the monkeys that are used there to study how the brain works.

On 10 September, a seven-minute film purporting to show immense cruelty and suffering was aired on German television. The scenes of animals bleeding from surgery and apparently being manhandled into restraining chairs were hard to watch.

The impact on the institute was immediate. Staff members were threatened, and politicians were called on to shut down the research.

With increasing frequency, animal activists are infiltrating labs where research is done with non-human primates. Four such operations have been conducted in the past 18 months alone by the media-savvy British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection in London, which has also produced an English-language film clipped from Pawel’s footage.

The Max Planck Society (MPS) — the Tübingen institute’s umbrella organization— was taken off guard by the furore, but it has responded well. It immediately set up an independent expert investigation into conditions for animals in the institute, and published its initial conclusions on 18 September. It said that the film gave a false impression and that the monkeys are particularly well treated at the institute — although veterinary staff are working at the limits of their capacity. The MPS declared that no new research projects will be initiated there until another vet is hired, and until a computer system to record the animals’ consumption of food and drink is in place. And rather than insisting that scientists keep their heads down, as it has in the past, it sent the institute’s animal-welfare officers to a television debate on 17 September.

More concerning is the fact that the MPS was taken off guard at all. The society has delayed moves by the German scientific community to create an organization to lobby appropriately for animal research and provide professional support in crises such as this one. The moves had in any case been much too slow, given Germany’s ambition to become a biomedical powerhouse, which activist campaigns are undermining.

“German scientists have led the European discussion on openness about animal research, but they have not been served well by their organizations.”

Nature has long advocated for professional animal-research lobbies to combat such campaigns with openness. To battle diseases from Ebola to Alzheimer’s — which most of society wants to see conquered — researchers need to use monkeys. It is a difficult issue, and it is understandable that some people think research using non-human primates is too high a price for human health. Some animal activists distort the true facts of such work, or threaten scientists, to promote their cause. Researchers who use monkeys realize that keeping quiet about their work is ineffective. They believe that a more effective — and honest — strategy requires them to show the world what they do, and explain why.

The United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands all have national organizations that support and advocate on behalf of animal research. The powerful US Society for Neuroscience (SfN) and its European counterpart, the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies, have specialist committees. “We all know we need to come out of the closet,” says Mickey Goldberg, a neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York, who is chair of the SfN committee of animal research and has spoken in support of the Tübingen scientists.

The Max Planck Institute in Tübingen has, independently of the nervous MPS leadership, done a good job of explaining on its website why it uses monkeys, and how they are cared for. Yet coverage of the recent incident suggests that journalists did not turn to it for information. They might have used an authoritative and independent professional organization — had it existed. Such a group could also have given media training to those who might be targeted by animal activists, or might need to speak up, including research leaders. The representatives who took part in the television debate did a splendid job of defending the Tübingen institute’s work, but they did not seize the initiative to match the activists’ skills in appealing to the emotions of their audience by explaining that animal research is needed to save lives and alleviate suffering. That is what media training can teach you.

German scientists have led the European discussion on openness about animal research, but they have not been served well by their organizations, which have stalled for time, worried and quarrelled among themselves. The Tübingen debacle must be a wake-up call for them. There are encouraging signs. Last week, the chastened Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany — whose members include the MPS as well as universities and granting agencies — agreed to present plans for an independent organization in the “foreseeable future”. It should do this fast. Animal-activist groups in Europe are becoming ever more professional, well organized, coordinated and well funded. The research community needs to match them.

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