Every day, physicians care for patients with neurological and psychiatric disorders, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes using cutting-edge treatments and therapies. But the biomedical research that drives these health care advances and improved health outcomes is under attack by animal rights extremists. Because the potential damages to neurology and neuroscience are tremendous, putting a stop to these unlawful activities should be a joint effort across the research and medical communities to protect research and advance medical progress.
ASSESSING THE THREAT
Attacks on scientists are increasing in number and are becoming progressively more violent and personal. Incidents in the past two years illustrate this trend: a firebombing, the flooding of a home, a home invasion, attempted car bombings, illegal demonstrations at the homes of researchers, and many other forms of harassment were directed at scientists, with animal activist groups proudly claiming responsibility.
It may be tempting to dismiss animal rights activists as harmless protesters having their say, but a visit to the Animal Liberation Front's message boards reveals posts urging acts of arson and death threats against researchers, and celebrating the sickness and death of those who have violated their definition of humane treatment of animals. One infamous animal rights activist, paradoxically a physician, openly advocates the killing of researchers to “save animal lives.”
The Foundation for Biomedical Research estimates that over 90 illegal acts were carried out against scientists, mostly neuroscientists, by animal rights extremists in 2007. The same year, a record 11 Society for Neuroscience (SfN) members under attack approached the Committee on Animals in Research, which I chair, for support. When a scientist is under attack, we provide much-needed support to researchers facing career- or life-threatening acts. In the past few years, we have seen some scientists leave the United States or the academic community due to the threats. One high profile case involved a scientist abandoning his field of research altogether to protect his family who were being attacked at their home. These events compelled the SfN to take strong action.
BEST PRACTICES TO PROTECT RESEARCHERS
While individual support is critical, it is not enough. The SfN realized that, to make a difference, we needed to promote systemic change, focusing on helping America's research institutions and universities, which bear the primary responsibility for providing a safe environment for their researchers. Earlier this year, the SfN released guidelines, Best Practices for Protecting Researchers and Research. Building on the safety and security plans created by some of the nation's leading universities, Best Practices is a blueprint for action to provide public leadership and public commitment to researchers and the research enterprise; develop and implement security protocols and relationships in advance of attacks; and support policy and public communication solutions at the federal, state, and local levels.
(The document is available at www.sfn.org/bestpractices.)
The Best Practices plan helps university administrations to formulate a response strategy to a variety of animal rights activities. Perhaps most importantly, it encourages institutional leaders to speak out publicly in support of researchers, as these attacks not only can wreak havoc on a scientist's personal life, but also damage his or her reputation. Strong institutional support can greatly enhance the sense of safety felt by a scientist under attack, which is essential to ensuring that no more feel the need to abandon their research.
Since the document was released in February, the SfN members have been meeting with their institution's administrations about the SfN guidelines. Already, a number of universities are taking action. My institution, Chicago's Rush University Medical Center, has begun the process of putting a Best Practices plan in place, together with Stroger Hospital and the University of Illinois Medical Center.
There is more work to be done: researchers and physicians should join together to meet with their university officials. Taking advantage of the shared research and health priorities of the SfN and AAN can strengthen the case made to decision makers on this major issue. Already, the AAN took a meaningful step by asking me to speak on this issue at the 2008 AAN annual meeting.
More broadly, funding agencies, including the NIH, have become active when attacks threaten research. The SfN encourages the NIH to continue its support by taking a stronger role in expecting universities to protect their huge investments in research, because more than 3,400 institutions in the US receive NIH funding totaling over $20 billion annually.
The responsible and humane use of animals in research has been an indispensable part of the health and medical revolution that is treating and curing crippling conditions, which affect millions of Americans. Disorders like Alzheimer and Parkinson diseases and post-stroke paralysis cause untold hardship for countless families and drain billions from the economy annually. Moreover, it has been repeatedly shown that the American public supports the responsible use of animals to conduct research, and overwhelmingly rejects animal rights extremism.
Scientists and physicians can show support for this research by alerting colleagues and institutional leaders about the SfN Best Practices guidelines and raising these issues in other public forums. As this effort grows, we ask AAN members and the larger medical community to join SfN in our mission to protect scientists and offer the promise of better health for all Americans. Doing so not only supports the responsible use of animals in research, but also promotes research that leads to essential, life-enhancing medical advances.