July 9, 2001
Emory scientists struggle with communicating animal research
By Eric Rangus firstname.lastname@example.org
Sitting quietly on the stage at WHSCAB auditorium last month, Thomas
Insel carefully considered his words to address the crowd of about 150
attending Meeting of the Minds, a panel discussion exploring
the difficulties of communicating scientific research to the public.
When pediatrics associate Professor Paul Fernhoff finished explaining
how the subtleties of science and its frequently slow progress often turn
off members of the media, Insel took the microphone and slid it toward
His points were anything but subtle.
The problem Ive faced most of all has been the need for us
to use nonhuman animals in basic science researchparticularly research
thats going to have a biomedical outcomeand the problem weve
faced in trying to communicate how essential that is, Insel said.
The director of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience served as director
of the Yerkes Primate Research Center from 1994 to 1999, so the issue
was hardly a foreign one.
A large number of people are vehemently opposed to the use of animals
in research, Insel said. We havent done our share to
help the public and the media understand that every medicine and vaccine
only gets approved through current regulatory requirements by testing
in nonhuman animals. Somehow that message gets lost.
The impassioned disagreement between researchers and animal rights activists
is one of completely incompatible ideas: one side fighting to protect
animals of all kinds from perceived abuse and exploitation by humans versus
the other, which utilizes animals in an attempt to better the lives of
humans and perhaps prolong them by eventually defeating diseases such
as cancer and AIDS.
We believe we have an obligation to our human patients to develop
treatments and cures, said Stuart Zola, incoming director of the
primate research center. We believe we can do this while ensuring
the welfare of animals used in research. Our stewardship of research animals
is guided by federal, state and local regulations.
Research with animals helps not only humans but animals, too, Zola
continued. Our pets develop cancer, heart disease and other conditions
that impair their health and quality of life.
Shock was the first reaction from physiology Professor Thomas Nichols,
who saw his name displayed prominently in an advertisement titled Weird
Science that appeared in the Emory Wheel, Sept. 1, 2000.
In the upper-right-hand corner was what was described as a decerebrate
cat (one that has had its brain removed), its head immobilized in an instrument
called a stereotactic frame. While never directly accusing Emory or Nichols
of performing the pictured experiment, the implication was clear: Stop
the people responsible for this.
That picture was not from my laboratory, Nichols said, adding
that it didnt come from any Emory laboratory. So whoever was
doing this, their motives were not to have an open, honest, ethical debate
about animal research. Their motives must be something else.
The ad was purchased by the Southeast regional office of the California-based
activist organization In Defense of Animals (IDA). It was the first of
10 advertisements IDA purchased for display in the Emory Wheel
Reaction to the Nichols ad was swift. Medical school Dean Thomas Lawley,
President Bill Chace, then-Provost Rebecca Chopp, Executive Vice President
for Health Affairs Michael Johns and a host of scientists and professors
responded with letters to the editor of the Wheel, alternately
defending the Emory researchers, attacking the animal rights activists
and questioning the Wheels judgment in running what were
widely seen as inflammatory ads.
The debate carried on into October. As one volley would dissipate, another
would start up when a new ad would call a different researchers
work into question.
On Sept. 22, Wheel editor Reid Epstein took a stand. He said while
he didnt agree with what IDA said in its ads, the organizations
right to free speech trumped Emorys privacy issues.
One course he did take was to ask IDA to stop running the names of individual
researchers, which IDA southeast regional coordinator Jean Barnes agreed
I felt [the advertisements] were well documented already, but Ill
live with making the changes, the Wheel quoted Barnes as
The University has to walk the tightrope of making sure that its
professors and the institution are protected against defamation or against
threats of some kind of violence or harm versus the fact that folks have
a First Amendment right to voice their opinion, said associate general
counsel Kris West, who has handled legal cases involving Emory and animal-rights
Usually what we do is review the information distributed and try
to determine whether there is an actual threat [of physical harm]. If
there is an actual threat, you can turn to law enforcement authorities.
That is rarely the case, but ignoring the protests hardly makes researchers
Several Emory scientists (including Nichols and Insel, whose quotes appeared in another ad last year set up to appear he was attacking the work of an Emory scientist) have been the subject of attack ads.
Others have had their home addresses and phone numberseven those
of their spousesplaced on animal rights websites. Still others have
had to deal with anti-research leaflets printed by animal rights groups
and posted throughout local neighborhoods.
The design of one website closely mimics that of Yerkes own home
page (calling it Emory Universitys Center for Tax Waste), and includes
links to several animal-rights related causes, as well as commentary specifically
calling into question research attributed to Yerkes and other Emory scientists.
It also posts pro-animal rights reinterpretations of studies published
by Emory researchers or press releases announcing the results of work
using nonhuman animals.
For the most part Emory does not directly address the accusations of
animal rights groups. The consensus among researchers as well as Health
Sciences Communications is that a debate with activists would lead nowhere.
Our approach has been to look at whats being asked and by
whom, said Sylvia Wrobel, assistant vice president of Health Sciences
Communications. With some groups, our experience has been that it
doesnt matter much what you say. Other people were very responsive
Those people include media organizations and local, state and federal
government entities, Wrobel said.
Generally, the media have a pretty balanced view of the research/animal
rights debate, and the media members who sat on the June Meeting
of the Minds panel said as much when the subject came up. But the
scientific communitys historic silence on animal research was seen
as a difficulty, as well.
We think its important to report on animal research, but
weve had some difficulty in doing these stories because of fears
by the researchers that they will get letters or hear from the protesters,
said Rhonda Rowland, a medical correspondent for CNN. In television
we have to show the researchwe need to show the animals, and were
often told, No, we cant let you see our animals. [That]
makes it very difficult for us to do the story.
Regardless of what we might feel about it personally, [we] present
the issues fairly and in context, said Nick Tate, science and medicine
editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This may mean
something as simple as taking three sentences on the protest and putting
it on page E64 with both positions articulated or, depending on what the
issue is, putting it on the front page of the newspaper.
The campus media have a similar perspective. One such protest led last
year by IDA took place on Clifton Road during the middle of the animal
rights advertising controversy. The Wheel story chronicling the
event ran on page 5.
While animal researchers are sometimes reluctant about their work, that
approach may be changing. Emory is revamping its web site with a comprehensive
Q&A on the subject, and next year the University will host a mini-medical
schoolone portion encompassing a program on how research moves from
an idea to testing and the steps beyond.
Wrobel also is working with researchers, encouraging them to go out in
the public to speak to groups interested in their work.
Not to the protesters, she said, But to the Rotary
Club, or whoever else wants to know.
Again, Insels words to Meeting of the Minds, rang appropriate.
We really shouldnt think about this as publish or perish. Insel said, referring to the long-held cliché about advancement in academia. We need to get to the point where it is either explain or expire. We have to understand that what we do, we do only with the support of the public. There are a number of people who are trying to remove that support. Its really our obligation to make sure we convey what we do, how we do it and why its important.