Wasteful, outdated, and unnecessary.
These are three of the most common claims voiced by animal rights groups about the use of animals in research. Are they accurate? Not in the least. Countless published papers and medical advancements demonstrate how animal studies lead to medical progress. But despite this reality, public opinion is no longer solidly behind science.
Pew Research Center polling data from 2018 showed that only 47 percent of Americans are in favor of the use of animals in scientific research. This compares to 52 percent in 2009. Another recent poll, this time from Gallup, showed slightly more encouraging results. In 2018, 54 percent of respondents said medical testing in animals is morally acceptable. That’s down from 62 percent in 2004.
Based on these sobering statistics, it’s abundantly clear that the science community needs to try a new communications approach. For several decades, most research organizations have shied away from sharing anything but the most minimal details about the role of animals in advancing human and veterinary medicine. This decision was historically based in part on security concerns. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, a small group of animal extremists targeted individual scientists with harassment, home protests, and even firebombs and arson attacks. Thankfully, those days appear to be behind us.
However, as a result of our collective silence, animal rights activists for the most part now own the narrative. They’ve convinced a large number of their fellow citizens to reject an often-irreplaceable part of the health research process. In this alternate reality, researchers dedicated to advancing new treatments and cures, along with veterinarians and other animal caregivers, have been cast as villains. Many members of the public have accepted the false narrative—likely due to our tendency to ignore inconvenient truths—that future progress will not be impeded if animal studies end tomorrow.
So, what are the effects? If the science community doesn’t change its communications strategy soon, future progress may slow to a trickle.
Here’s what we must do to avoid that:
First, all health research organizations, both public and private, must do their part to highlight the critical role of animal studies. University and company websites should prominently feature information that explains why and how animals are involved in research. All institutions must consider sharing photos and videos that provide an accurate picture of animal-based studies and the settings in which they are housed and cared for. Many of the images that currently form public opinion are distributed by animal rights activists and are often wildly outdated. Sometimes they are selectively shot and edited to further an anti-research agenda. Other times they lack important context or falsely portray rare events as commonplace.
On top of that, research institutions need to take a much more proactive approach when it comes to communicating with the public. Whenever health advancements involve animals, their role should be clearly highlighted and explained at length. Ignoring the critical contributions of our animals is ungrateful and disrespectful. Also, when a certain species is chosen for study over another, the public needs to understand why.
Our institutions need to encourage employees to tell their stories.
Science institutions should revisit their media access policies. Speaking as an individual who has both studied animals and overseen their care, I’ve had the opportunity to visit countless research facilities. In doing so, I’ve witnessed time and time again the tremendous commitment of faculty, staff, and administrators to ensuring that animals are treated with kindness and respect. Perhaps it is time for the public to see what I have seen. This can be done by offering more trusted media members an inside view.
All communications staff should be required to visit vivariums regularly so they can see firsthand the compassionate care that research animals receive. They should then find ways to share these experiences with the public. Communicators should always be able to provide several examples of current and recent research advancements that required animal studies. They must also maintain deep knowledge about the many laws, regulations, and protocols in place to protect animals in research.
We must remind the public repeatedly that, while animals are necessary for our studies, we’re also animal welfarists and advocates. We’re on-hand days, nights, weekends, and even holidays to care for our animals. Our community needs to highlight the many dedicated individuals and systems—including specially trained laboratory animal veterinarians, devoted care staff, and Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) oversight—to ensure animals are only studied when necessary and address and resolve issues when they arise.
Perhaps most importantly, our institutions need to encourage employees to tell their stories. Those who work with research animals and witness the benefits on a daily basis should be empowered to talk to friends and neighbors. Institutions and scientists should make certain that the role of animals in health research is explicitly addressed in their existing outreach programs.
Over the past few decades, the animal rights movement has been tremendously successful in shifting public opinion with emotional and sometimes misleading claims. But we cannot forget that science and the facts speak for themselves. We have our own powerful and compelling stories to tell and the public needs to hear them, now more than ever. Of course, safety and security must always be considered. But the risks are minimal and the costs of failing to act are far too great.
Cindy Buckmaster is the chair of Americans for Medical Progress and director of the Center for Comparative Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.