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July 9, 2001

Emory scientists struggle with communicating animal research

By Eric Rangus


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 himself.

His points were anything but subtle.

“The problem I’ve faced most of all has been the need for us to use nonhuman animals in basic science research—particularly research that’s going to have a biomedical outcome—and the problem we’ve 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 haven’t 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.”
While researchers continue to test different ways to spread their message, animal-rights activists drum their ideas home with carefully chosen words and pictures: not all of them pleasant and some arguably inflammatory.

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 didn’t 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 last fall.

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 Wheel’s 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 researcher’s work into question.

On Sept. 22, Wheel editor Reid Epstein took a stand. He said while he didn’t agree with what IDA said in its ads, the organization’s right to free speech trumped Emory’s 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 to do.

“I felt [the advertisements] were well documented already, but I’ll live with making the changes,” the Wheel quoted Barnes as saying.

“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 activists.

“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’ lives any

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 numbers—even those of their spouses—placed 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 University’s 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 what’s being asked and by whom,” said Sylvia Wrobel, assistant vice president of Health Sciences Communications. “With some groups, our experience has been that it doesn’t matter much what you say. Other people we’re very responsive to.”

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 community’s historic silence on animal research was seen as a difficulty, as well.

“We think it’s important to report on animal research, but we’ve 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 research—we need to show the animals, and we’re often told, ‘No, we can’t 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 school—one 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, Insel’s words to “Meeting of the Minds,” rang appropriate.

“We really shouldn’t 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. It’s really our obligation to make sure we convey what we do, how we do it and why it’s important.”


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