Emma M. Sanchez, Press and Communications Officer, the European Animal Research Association (EARA).
23rd September 2015
Lack of communications from research organisations encourages misconceptions about science and the role of animals in research that fuel animal rights groups’ campaigns such as the recent European Citizens’ Initiative ‘Stop Vivisection’.
- Animal rights groups are globally coordinated and current tactics focus on halting the supply chain, forcing research to move to other locations, potentially affecting research output in Europe as well as animal welfare.
- Opinion polls show a positive shift in public attitudes to animal research in those countries where advocacy organisations exist.
- A pan-European network of animal research organisations, as the one coordinated by the European Animal Research Organisation (EARA), can orchestrate a unified voice to promote favorable conditions in Europe for important research using animals.
Current situation in Europe on Animal Research
During the last decade Europe has experienced a reduction in criminal activity seeking to halt animal research. On the one hand this is the result of better, more coordinated policing leading to the incarceration of most extreme activists. On the other hand, there has been a collapse in public support for extremist activity. Criminal campaigns have been replaced by effective public relations that seek to exploit the lack of information explaining the reasoning and achievements of biomedical research using animals.
Animal rights groups in Europe are becoming more professional and better coordinated. They run well-funded national and international initiatives aimed at winning the support of the public and legislators for their campaigns to restrict and, ultimately, abolish the use of animals in scientific research. Their tactics consist of cherry-picking scientific studies; decontextualize its conclusions and presenting them as common, exploiting the public’s lack of general knowledge on the subject. Another well exploited approach is to name individuals and organisations that perform research using animals and trying to shame them by sharing research information often kept behind walls. As a result, they are increasingly pushing the message that animal research is bad for science and hinders the development of alternative methods.
The recent ‘Stop Vivisection’ European Citizens’ Initiative illustrates the degree of coordination and collaboration that animal rights organisations can achieve. The petition called on the European Commission to abrogate Directive 2010/63 and to propose a new legislation eliminating the need of animal research and collected 1,170,130 signatures from 26 different countries (1). The vast majority of signatories of the ‘Stop Vivisection’ petition came from countries where there has been little public engagement from the scientific community, such as Italy, or where no professional advocacy group exists as in Germany. The lack of communications from research organisations, scientists and supportive organisations encourages misconceptions about science and animal models that fuel these initiatives.
Campaigns against Animal Research
Some of these globally coordinated initiatives against animal research target the supply chain with the aim that interfering with breeders and transport companies will force researchers to stop using animals. They manipulate public attitudes by showing pitiful images of animals and persuade them to join their campaigns using inaccurate and misleading narrative. They omit key facts in the communications, such as the fact that both breeders and transport companies are as carefully regulated through European Directive 2010/63 as any research organisation that uses their specialised services.
If these campaigns against the supply chain are successful, one potential consequence would be that more research centres will have to breed animals on site. Decentralised breeding will surely impose an additional impact in research budgets, in the number of animals to report and potentially in the welfare of the animal since standards are not consistent worldwide. Furthermore, to request permits for expanding or building new breeding and housing facilities for research animals is something activists are well trained to contest.
Another possible outcome of the absence of a coordinated supply chain could, in the long run, undermine Europe’s prowess to meet drug development regulatory requirements. For a candidate drug to reach clinical trials in humans, the US Food and Drug Agency (FDA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) require toxicity tests in animals. Drug and global healthcare development is potentially at stake due to campaigns as the ‘Cargo Cruelty’ against Air France and the ‘Boycott Marshall Pet Products’. The latter campaign was launched in 2012 against Marshall Pet, a division of the US firm Marshall Bioresources who breeds animals for biomedical research. Marshall Bioresources and its subsidiaries holdings B & K Universal in the UK and Green Hill in the Northern Italian province of Brescia, have endured long-lasting intimidation campaigns internationally coordinated. In the case of Green Hill, the relentless persecution led to jail convictions for the management team, which the company appealed last May.
Box 1: Animal Research challenges in Italy
The unprecedented Green Hill verdict is a direct consequence of the absence in Italy of a balanced narrative on the reasoning, and potential benefits, of research using animals and the role of breeders within it. Lack of proactive communications from public and privately funded research organisations gave the opposition a valuable opportunity to push their message. The opportunity, timely exploited, is intensified by a skewed media reporting system. Private ownership of most news media outlets implies that there is no duty to provide fair information on controversial topics or to adequately represent the facts, and often there are strong incentives not to.
The creation of an expert, authoritative, professional and accessible scientific news outlet has long been ached if the public is to fully understand the facts and the issues at stake in controversial scientific media stories. To meet this growing concern the Italian scientific community, with the support of professional national organisations and the European Animal Research Association, launched last July in the Italian Senate a new organisation Research4life (R4L). This platform aims to improve the public acceptance of biomedical research in Italy and the role of animals within by providing Italian opinion leaders and decision-makers direct access to science and scientific news stories (2).
Having existed earlier, R4L could well have helped during the Green Hill turmoil where one main instigator behind the continued harassment has been Michela V. Brambilla. Former television journalist for Berlusconi’s Mediaset group, Brambilla is currently the representative of the People of Freedom Party for the Emilia-Romana region where Green Hill facilities are located, the President of the Italian League for the Defence of Animals and the Environment (Lega Italiana per la difensa degli Animali e dell’Ambiente) and author of the Manifesto Animalista where she refers to Green Hill as the ‘Hill of Shame’ (La Collina della Vergogna) (3). Since animalistas – Italian for animal right advocates – are a large vocal and politically active group, it is unsurprising that Brambilla has identified them as a core constituency and has used her media influence to mobilise them.
Role of advocacy organisations: Case examples from the UK and Italy.
What have we learned from the situation in Italy? Activists have developed powerful communications campaigns that challenge the reputation of those involved in animal research in order to influence public perceptions with the final goal of calling decision makers to phase out animal research. Despite activists’ efforts, there has been 16 percent increase in public support in Italy for biomedical research in 2014 opinion polls (4) when compared with previous available polls (5). This rise in support coincides with the creation at the end of 2012 of Pro-Test Italia (6), a non-profit organisation for the defence of biomedical research. The 2014 opinion poll figure likely illustrates the benefits gained through effective communications of the sort that professional advocacy organisations can provide. The new organisation R4L will surely contribute to continue improving Italian public attitudes by addressing audiences in media and policy making.
A lot of work still needs to be done in Italy to achieve the acceptance levels of other European countries. Recent opinion polls commissioned by the UK Government (7) show that 64 percent of the public accept animal research when is for medical research purposes. Behind this figure there is a continuous and extensive work being done on educating audiences on the benefits of research using animals and on the regulations that scientists, research organisations and any other stakeholders working with animals have to meet. The Research Defence Society has worked since the beginning of the last century to promote a broader understanding of animal research in the UK. In 2008 it merged with the Coalition for Medical Progress to form Understanding Animal Research (UAR) (8) that, with the help of research centres, founders and charities, is responsible for the current balanced and transparent debate. In May 2014 UAR launched the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research in the UK. In this document, signatories acknowledge the fundamental contribution of animal research in understanding the way the body works and its role in medical, veterinary and scientific progress and commit to being clear about when, how and why they conduct research using animals. The concordat, which has been endorsed to date by 95 organisations nationwide, has been welcomed by all stakeholders as a supportive and proactive communication initiative which has deeply contributed to improve science media relations.
Benefits of a pan-European network of animal research organisations
Professional advocacy organisations that counter animal rights initiatives and promote wider public understanding and acceptance of animal research are scarce across Europe. Besides the previously mentioned Understanding Animal Research, Pro-Test Italia and R4L, there are the Basel Declaration in Switzerland (9), the Dutch association for ‘information on experimental animals’ (Stichting Informatie Dierproven)(10) and the ‘Groupe Interprofessionnel de Réflexion et de Communication sur la Recherche’ (GIRCOR) that operates in France since 1991 (11). At the beginning of June Protest Germany was launched (12) prompted by the decision of Professor Nikos Logothetis, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics who endured an activist infiltration last year, of stopping his research in non-human primates following the disproportionate negative media attention.
As exemplified above in the case of the UK and Italy, these advocacy organisations monitor the public debate and help to expose myths and misinformation on the use of animals for medical or scientific purposes resulting in an open and balanced public debate. The benefits gained through national advocacy organisations can be amplified if a collective, clear response to activist pressure can be coordinated in Europe. This is the mission of the European Animal Research Association (EARA) (13). The benefit gained through EARA is twofold: it facilitates the establishment of advocacy groups in countries where they are absent and it fosters the creation of a pan-European network that will help to coordinate local, national and international efforts in support of the fundamental role of animals in scientific and biomedical research. By nurturing the creation of advocacy groups in European countries, supporting them and orchestrating a unified voice, the pan-European network of above 40 animal research organisations that currently compose EARA seeks to accurately inform citizens and legislators to promote a favourable climate in support of responsible and humane biomedical research using animals. While animal research alternative methods are being developed and validated, research organisations should make good use of all available resources to support their scientists.
EARA is a membership organisation and we encourage research institutions that share our concerns about the absence of an intelligent narrative to the public and decision makers on the benefits of animal research to join us. For further information, please visit www.eara.eu.
- Official Register of the European Citizens’ Initiative. http://ec.europa.eu/citizens-initiative/public/initiatives/finalised/details/2012/000007 (Accessed 21 September 2015)
- Research 4 Life. http://www.research4life.it/ (Accessed 21 September 2015)
- Michaela Vittoria Brambilla. Manifiesto Animalista. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Q7unqe9B3JkC&pg=PA0&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false (Accessed 21 September 2015)
- Ipsos Public Affairs. La sperimentazione biomedica sugli animali: conoscenza, valutazioni e opinioni dei cittadini, 20 Novembre 2012 – Senato della Repubblica. http://www.ipsos.it/pdf/sperimetazione_biologica_DEF_per_senato.pdf (Accessed 21 September 2015)
- Ipsos Public Affairs. Le opinioni degli italiani sulla sperimentazione animale, Gennaio 2014. http://www.ipsos.it/Le%20opinioni%20degli%20italiani%20sulla%20sperimentazione%20animale_intervento%2014_01_2014%20DEF.pdf (Accessed 21 September 2015)
- Pro-Test Italia. Chi sono i Pro-Testers? https://protestitalia.wordpress.com/ (Accessed 21 September 2015)
- Ipsos Mori, Social research Institute. A report by Ipsos MORI for the Department for Business Innovation & skills, Attitudes to animal research: A long-term survey of public views 1999-2014, September 2014. https://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Polls/sri_BISanimalresearch_TRENDreport.pdf
- Understanding Animal Research. http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/ (Accessed 21 September 2015)
- Basel Declaration. http://www.basel-declaration.org/ (Accessed 21 September 2015)
- Stichting Informatie Dierenproeven. http://www.informatiedierproeven.nl/home.php (Accessed 21 September 2015)
- Recherche Animale. http://www.recherche-animale.org/ (Accessed 21 September 2015)
- Protest Germany. http://www.protestgermany.org (Accessed 21 September 2015)
- The European Animal Research Association. eara.eu (Accessed 21 September 2015)