The Day I Let a Reporter Into My Lab

In the summer of 1985 Washington Post reporter Phil McCombs, whom I had met socially, approached me about being interviewed for a story he was planning. He wanted to profile a scientist who did biomedical research with animals. Although I was flattered, all my instincts screamed “NO! Don’t do it!” Being an untenured assistant professor building a laboratory at an emerging research institution, I felt there was nothing to be gained and everything to lose professionally if I gr

Jan 25, 1988
James Wilson

In the summer of 1985 Washington Post reporter Phil McCombs, whom I had met socially, approached me about being interviewed for a story he was planning. He wanted to profile a scientist who did biomedical research with animals. Although I was flattered, all my instincts screamed “NO! Don’t do it!” Being an untenured assistant professor building a laboratory at an emerging research institution, I felt there was nothing to be gained and everything to lose professionally if I granted such an interview. Besides, I wanted to be known for my research and not for having my opinions recorded in the popular press. I suggested the names of several well-established scientists and Nobel laureates who might be willing to be interviewed.

But McCombs was not interested in celebrities—he wanted a person who could be “the reader’s neighbor.” Therein lay the attraction of the project for me: an opportunity to speak candidly to millions of my neighbors about the goals and ethics of basic biomedical research in a forum generally not open to scientists.

The interview almost didn’t happen because McCombs insisted on seeing an animal experiment he could use as the “hook” for the story. The article would begin with a description of one of my experiments on a beagle’s brain and the question of why anyone would do such a horrible thing to an animal. The remainder of the story would explain why such experiments are absolutely necessary if science is going to solve the health problems that limit the duration and quality of life of millions of people.

Although I believe that laboratories and experiments should be open to responsible people, I was very nervous about letting a reporter into my laboratory, largely because of my university’s reaction. I had earlier told the administration about the interview, hoping for its help and support in dealing with the press (an area in which I had no experience). After much vacillation, administration officials asked me not to do the interview. They were afraid the public would be outraged by my experiments, regardless of what the article might say. They seemed to share the fear common to administrators that the institute could become a primary target of animal rights advocates who might break in and vandalize millions of dollars worth of equipment, supplies and facilities. The university had, in fact, already suffered one such break-in several years earlier. They feared too that animal rights advocates might marshal enough public support to slow down or stop research at the institute pending review of its animal care and use procedures. Whatever the outcome of such a review, the resulting scandal would have a detrimental effect on the university's obtaining contributions and remaining competitive for the ever-diminishing research dollar.

These fears were not completely unfounded, and I certainly did not want to jeopardize research at my university. Nevertheless, I allowed McCombs into my laboratory during an experiment and took the chance of being labeled an irresponsible radical from the 1960s. Fortunately, McCombs wrote a balanced story, which was published as the lead article in the May 20, 1986 “Style” section of the paper and later reprinted in many national and international newspapers.

Scientists must recognize the threat of the animal rights movement not only to animal research but to science as a whole. Because of a lack of understanding and poor communication, the public is increasingly antagonistic toward science and technology. People generally mistrust the unfamiliar, especially when it involves an emotional component such as the use of animals in research. The biomedical researcher is commonly portrayed in the popular media as an insensitive egghead capable of perpetrating the most hideous and inhumane experiments on animals (and humans) in the pursuit of knowledge. The animal rights movement has taken advantage of this stereotype in convincing the public, government officials, and lawmakers that all animal research is nothing more than torture, serving no useful purpose except to satisfy the perverse curiosity of the scientist and the greed of the biomedical establishment.

I can think of no way to offset the enormous momentum of the antivivisection and antiscience movements except through education and direct contact between the scientist and the public. Scientists must take an active role in’ communicating in non-technical terms what they do and why they do it to neighbors, schools, civic groups, churches, business organizations, and elected officials. Similarly, it is critically important that clinicians who become the ‘focus of media attention identify animal experiments as the source of their “miraculous” cures.

Adminstrators and officials at universities should also support their scientists who want to speak out on animal experiment issues. Besides providing a basic public service that is essential to the continuation of science and animal research, such efforts are important in developing good relationships with the media and the public. In the event of a crisis, an anti-research spokesperson is likely to attack with falsehoods and deliberately misleading distortions. For an institute to receive fair treatment from the press and maintain its credibility, the institute must already have a good working relationship with reporters who understand its research goals and who have met the scientists and visited the laboratories and facilities.

A candid discussion about the problems and ethics of animal research can only generate greater understanding. Our universities and institutes must not be intimidated by threats or acts of violence from publicly addressing issues that directly affect the health and welfare of society.

Wilson is with the department of anatomy, College of Medicine, Howard University Washington, DC 20059


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(The Scientist, Vol:2, #2, p.11, January 25, 1988)
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