Activists halt Oxford lab

Government urged to act after construction firm pulls out of Oxford animal lab

Jul 20, 2004
Philip Hunter(phunter@philiphunter.com)

The UK government has been urged to take emergency action to combat animal rights extremists after Walter Lilly, a subsidiary of the Montpellier Group, pulled out of an £18 million (USD $33.3 million) contract to build a new center for animal research at Oxford University. The decision was widely attributed to intimidation by animal rights extremists, although Montpellier would only say that the decision was reached by mutual consent with Oxford University.

Scientists were in little doubt that the decision has brought to a head the long-standing battle between the research community and the antivivisection campaign, with Oxford taking over from the Cambridge area as the focus of activity. The move by Montpellier comes 6 months after Cambridge University decided to abandon plans to build a primate research center.

Researchers consider the Oxford case to be more serious because it involves a large, broad-based animal laboratory where 98% of the work would be on rodents, rather than a specialist primate center, where antivivisectionists are more likely to gain public support. "Unlike Cambridge, where it was just a relatively small laboratory, this is the center for all animal research at Oxford," noted Mark Matfield, director of the pro-animal research Research Defence Society, in a statement.

The Montpellier decision should at last get the government to wake up and enact emergency legislation, according to Ian Gibson, chairman of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. "We want action now, but I've no confidence it will be taken at the moment," Gibson said. "I don't think the government realizes the severity of the situation even now." Gibson wanted action along the lines taken to combat soccer hooliganism. "If you can stop football thugs from going across to Europe, why can't they pick these people up? I can't believe they don't know who they are."

The threat posed by such extremists was not just to animal research, but to the whole UK science base, according to Simon Festing of the Association of Medical Research Charities. "Unless we see urgent action from the government, the prize of the UK staying a world leader in developing new medicines could slip through its fingers," he said in a statement.

But there was some qualified support for the government's position from Peter Cotgreave, director of the campaigning group Save British Science. "I think it's fair to say the government is on the case. David Sainsbury [UK science minister] said in the House of Commons last week that there would be action soon, meaning weeks," Cotgreave told The Scientist. "I think the government has accepted that there is a case for specific legislation on animal rights extremism."

Not surprisingly, animal rights groups refute the need for such legislation. "I think there's already sufficient laws in place to deal with people who engage in unlawful activity," Wendy Higgins, campaigns director of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, told The Scientist. Higgins welcomed the decision by Montpellier to pull out, although she deplored the use of violence or intimidation by animal rights extremists. "We oppose violence to both laboratory animals and humans."

Oxford University insisted that the Montpellier decision did not diminish its determination to complete the building. And according to Matfield, the university had undisclosed contingency plans that would enable the project to proceed on schedule.

This was dismissed as posturing and wishful thinking by Dan Lyons, director of the animal rights group Uncaged Campaigns. "I suspect it is a setback," Lyons said. "I think it will diminish the likelihood that the laboratory will be built."

Speak, an activist group that has been organizing protests in Oxford, but has distanced itself from violent action, urged supporters to stay focused on making sure the lab never opens.

But the fact that the project has a definite endpoint should make it harder for animal extremists to prevail, according to Matfield, who drew a distinction between this and the ongoing campaign against Huntington Life Sciences.

Gibson, on the other hand, was in no doubt that the Montpellier decision was a serious setback. "Of course it's a victory for them [animal rights extremists]," he said. "They are a bunch of hardened professionals and have shown they can intimidate even the security guards, and that they have a broader political agenda."