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Oxford resumes building animal lab

Sixteen months after animal activists shut down construction, work begins again under tightened security

By | December 2, 2005

The University of Oxford confirmed this week (November 30) that construction had resumed on the site of a controversial new animal research facility, after the project was halted in July 2004 by a campaign of intimidation and violence from animal rights activists who specifically targeted the employees of firms contracted to carry out construction work.

The previous shutdown shocked the British science world, and within months the government had begun drafting tougher laws to clamp down on animal extremists. Then, in November last year, the university was granted an injunction in the High Court that excluded specific people or groups from coming within 50 yards of the laboratory site, except during once-weekly demonstrations.

The injunction also excluded people from knowingly picketing, demonstrating, or loitering within 50 yards of the premises of contractors involved in the construction. People are also barred from coming within 100 yards of the houses of members of the university, staff, contractors, the shareholders of the contractors, or their families.

The University's registrar, David Holmes, told journalists in London on Wednesday that Oxford remained firmly committed to finishing the complex, which will consolidate animal housing and research laboratories for the university. "Completing the project will be good for animal welfare, good for medical research, and good for the treatment of life-threatening conditions all over the world," he said in a statement.

Still, the university chose not to make public its schedule for completion of the facility, a tactic designed to avoid giving activists a timetable for disruption. "We don't want to give flashpoints for protest," a spokeswoman told The Scientist.

Nevertheless, there is a sense within Oxford that levels of security are greater now than in mid-2004, the spokeswoman said. "During the time that the work has been stopped on site, we've been looking at ways that we can recommence work in a way that is safe for people working on the project and for university staff," she said.

Barbara Davies, spokeswoman for the Research Defence Society, which promotes the benefits of animal research, said the positive effects of the UK's tougher laws were being felt throughout the country. "We think it is having an impact," she told The Scientist.

News that Oxford had begun work again on the lab was greeted with relief by members of the UK research community. "We are delighted to hear of this development and believe that it is of real importance for the UK's contribution to global health and disease prevention," said Mike Spyer, Vice-Provost for Biomedicine at University College London.

After the news was announced, the animal rights group Speak posted a "call to action" on its Web site. "Let's get one thing clear: this is just the beginning in the next stage of the battle, Phase 1 of which went to the animal rights movement," the posting said. "The next year's campaign promises to be hard fought, and we will oppose Oxford University every inch of the way."

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