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The vital role of animals in biomedical research cannot be overstated. Thanks to animal research, major medical breakthroughs for debilitating disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, blindness, stroke and depression have been developed, as have lifesaving vaccines and surgical techniques.

Yet despite the crucial part that animals play in scientific progress, public support for animal research is fragile. That is due in part to misleading and negative public campaigns by animal-rights extremists.

The aggressive tactics directed at Christine Lattin, a postdoctoral researcher in biology at Yale University, and her research is a recent example of the personal risk that animal researchers often encounter. Lattin, a self-proclaimed bird lover, began her research on birds to better understand the variation in stress response by species. She hopes her passion-driven research will assist in conservation efforts in the face of persistent habitat threats, from oil spills to climate change. In the interest of full transparency, Lattin posted her studies on her website, at which point she became a target of animal-rights extremists who have mischaracterized her work in a public campaign. The attacks against Lattin have consistently worsened; extremists have gone so far as to threaten her life and protest outside of her family’s home.

Meanwhile, many research institutions aren’t doing enough to support and defend their scientists who conduct animal research, to explain the importance of animal research to the public and to describe the rigorous oversight of animal research and the dedicated compliance by scientists. Few research institutions, for instance, publicly discuss the use and oversight of animals in laboratories.

The ethical use of animals in research is in fact guided by the mandatory three Rs: to reduce the number of animals per experiment to the absolute minimum, to refine methods and experimental design and practices to limit the burden on the animals and improve animal welfare, which also improves the quality of science, and to replace animal experiments by alternative methods whenever possible. Federal law requires institutions to review, approve and monitor each animal study to comply with regulations and ensure that all personnel working with research animals are appropriately trained. Scientists are also personally committed to the responsible and humane treatment of animals, both because of our ethical responsibilities to the animals and for generating the best-quality research results.

A proactive approach that research institutions can take to support animal researchers is to develop plans and partner with scientists who, like Lattin, are willing to enter the public sphere to talk about these issues. Institutions have an important role to play in providing support and resources in this public conversation. That role includes creating an active and transparent communication strategy around animal research and its benefit to society, which is a proven way to prevent and counteract animal-rights extremists’ tactics to spread misinformation.

In addition, institutions need strategic plans for supporting researchers who come under attack and for publicly responding to incidents. Failure to take these proactive measures puts the institution and its researchers at risk of becoming targets of extremists. The scientific community knows firsthand what can happen when institutions are not adequately prepared -- or when they mistakenly believe they are ready to defend research and scientists.

The Max Planck Society in Tübingen, Germany, believed it was prepared, but instead it offers an example of an unexpected and rapidly escalating public relations crisis. After an animal-rights activist infiltrated its Institute for Biological Cybernetics and released a misleading, heavily edited video of primates used in neuroscience research, Max Planck was catapulted into the center of a high-profile public investigation and negative campaign by animal-rights extremists. The society’s delayed public relations response led to institute director and leading neuroscientist Nikos Logothetis discontinuing his important research on primates, saying, “I am no longer willing or able to accept the never-ending stream of abuse from animal activists toward myself and my co-workers, while seeing them encouraged to increase their aggressive activities by the tolerance and very slow reactions of scientific organizations.”

These events led Max Planck to re-evaluate its policies, resulting in a proactive animal research public relations strategy that is now a model in Europe. The institution also recently produced a thought-leading white paper on animal research, including a series of principles, recommendations and measures designed to balance the need for animal research with the obligation to conduct that research ethically and responsibly. That included introducing a novel fourth R principle (for responsibility), representing the commitment of researchers to use knowledge in life sciences and humanities to promote animal welfare in their institutes, as well as developing a mandatory ethics curriculum for staff members.

Institutions can take many lessons from the Max Planck example. When attacks on animal research arise, institutions must deliver a swift and forceful public response, not remain silent. Institutions should be equipped, first and foremost, to protect their researchers and their work. This includes being prepared to take legal measures, issuing public statements of support using accurate information, and providing moral, psychological and, if warranted, physical support to researchers and staff.

Advanced preparation and swift, accurate responses are essential. But the best way to prevent these attacks is through proactive public campaigns that illustrate the value of the research the institution conducts. The University of Wisconsin Madison is a leading example of institutional openness on animal research and preparedness to respond to animal-rights extremists. Eric Sandgren, former director of its Research Animals Resources Center, has established the Common Ground on Animal Research Initiative within the university and the surrounding community. The program’s goals are “creating more comprehensive, accurate and open communication about animal research” and improving research animal well-being. The initiative aims to provide communication models that accurately represent the challenges and benefits of animal research.

Lessons from Max Planck and the University of Wisconsin can be applied to any institution to develop public communications. Free, scientifically vetted materials designed to help institutions develop plans and address animal research issues are also available at the National Association for Biomedical Research, Americans for Medical Progress and the Society for Neuroscience.

Institutional support is pivotal to the continuance of scientific discoveries. By taking a proactive approach to communicating the vital need for animal research, institutions help ensure researchers can focus on valuable work that could lead to the discovery of promising treatments for vast unmet medical needs and improve the lives and health of people and also animals around the world.

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