Sci has, of course, returned from #EB2011 (that's Experimental Biology 2011 for those not on Twitter). She is still in the later stages of recovery. I don't know about you guys, but conferences always end up with me being ill from something or other. Be that as it may, Experimental Biology Blogging CONTINUES. Though I've covered all of the straight up science, now I'll be going through some of the other sessions I went to, sessions on outreach and funding, from the NIH director Francis Collins to sessions on grad students and outreach.
So far, the sessions I went to can be summed up easily in one sentence: SCIENTISTS NEED TO SPEAK UP. But for many scientists, it's not quite that simple.
The first session I went to was a session on Saturday afternoon called "Science, Scientist, Advocate: Making the Case for Increased Funding for Biomedical Research" sponsored by the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. The panel featured several speakers talking about aspects of federal research funding, and what we need to do to increase it (the answer: speak up). But what caught my attention was two of the speakers speaking on animal research, namely the sessions "Legislative issues and advocacy: use of animals in biomedical research" by M. R. Bailey of the National Association for Biomedical Research and "Advocating for animal research – what's a grad student to do?" by E. J. Burnett, one of the current Hayre Fellows for Public Outreach with Americans for Medical Progress. I found both of these sessions to be incredibly informative (the first kind of the depressing, the second uplifting), and had the luck to be able to sit down with the Hayre Fellow and the Vice President for Americans for Medical Progress, Kristen Bocanegra, where we talked a little more about the situation with Animal Research Activism, and what scientists can do to promote their work and the ethical use of animals in research.
The following is a summary of our conversation (being a not real reporter, I has no tape recorder), and some of my thoughts. So I guess it's kind of an editorial? Anyway.
I'll begin with some of my thoughts on the presentation by Mr. Bailey, the Vice President for the National Association for Biomedical Research. Bailey correctly pointed out that animal research plays a significant role in medical advancement and in the discovery of new drugs, benefitting human and animal health through the development of new drugs and technologies and the increase in information about human and animal physiology.
But there are of course people who have grave concerns about the use of animals in research. And that's ok. This is not a black and white issue, and different ethical codes promote different measures of animal welfare and animal use, from none at all to whatever we care to do. Most people fall somewhere in the middle, recognizing the use of animals for food, clothing, and medical research as being of great benefit, but acknowledging that we have great responsibility for their welfare.
The problem is that those who believe in ethical animal use often have their voices drowned out, both on the internet, and increasingly on Capitol Hill, by those who believe that any use of animals is unethical. The groups have a lot of money and a lot of presence, and a great ability to generate letters from constituents (as the girls from AMP told me, they can make 50 people sound like 5000). They are relatively small, but extremely vocal. And they can introduce legislation on things like the Farm Bill, which would impact the animal welfare act. Or the BEST act (Battlefield Excellence through Superior Training), which would end live animal use in military medical training (though what about this would help promote battlefield excellence, I'm not sure). The best example so far is the Great Ape Protection Act, which, though it sounds like a great idea (who doesn't want to protect great apes?) prohibits most invasive research. This wouldn't be a bad thing, except that they have defined invasive research very broadly, including things like blood draws. Great Apes, particularly chimpanzees, have an immune system very close to that of humans. Chimp research is responsible for the development of the Hepatitis A and B vaccines, and work on Hepatits C, a disease which affects up to 300 million people worldwide, currently ongoing. This research would be prevented is the Great Ape Protection Act in its current form were to pass.
But scientists have remained peculiarly silent on these issues. Part of the reason is that we are not ENCOURAGED to speak up. Our funding sources want research results, not outreach. Another reason is that some of the Animal Rights Organizations are pursuing policies that go far beyond state and federal legislation. Policies including violence and threats against research, which leave many people scared and afraid to speak out. Threats have included murder, and there have been car bombings and razor blades in the mail.
What is the solution to this? Bailey says we need to be active on Capitol Hill, and active on a personal level, bringing people in to our labs, to see exactly what we do and how carefully we work. Being active on Capitol Hill doesn't necessarily mean going in person to advocate. He pointed out that we can advocate by going through our societies, encouraging scientific societies to push for federal funding and to push back against animal research organizations. And he encourages us to speak out, bring people in to our labs, and show them what we do. A lot of the fear of animal research comes from those who have no idea what it is that we do on a regular basis, and no idea how our work can benefit humans and animals down the road.
I then got stayed to hear from Elizabeth Burnett, one of the two current Hayre Fellows for Americans for Medical Progress. While Bailey's talk was a little depressing, pointing out the many ways in which research is under attack, Burnett's talk gave me a lot of hope as she spoke about the development of a new plan for high school and college age biology classes called SHARE: Speaking Honestly Animal Research Education. SHARE is a program based on the development of discussion based classroom activities, fitting easily into a Biology 101 course for a day. The program takes care to engage in open, honest dialogue about what animal research actually entails, who does it, and what kind of knowledge we can gain from it. It also emphasizes the concept of animal welfare, and the role played by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC).
The course is designed around a single case study, with several different animal options, assigned to a small gorup. Burnett noted to me that they are very careful to make sure that all sides are heard, but that all discussion remain respectful, allowing people to speak up and rhetoric to get passionate is fine, but no accusations, insults, or threats against other students are tolerated. And in fact, she mentioned to me that most of their classroom interactions have been peaceful, with students very willing to have a thoughtful and respectful discussion.
As the case study proceeds, the students work out whether an animal model is appropriate, and if it is, what regulations should be in place. The discussion ends up covering survival vs nonsurvival studies, what that means, and what it entails. The case studies are designed specifically to NOT be life or death kind of studies (finding out what a drug does to learning and memory as opposed to say, curing a deadly disease), to give a more realistic idea of basic research, and allow the students to make their own decisions about the ethics of using animals models for such a study. The Hayre fellows go out of their way to be unbiased, and are willing to play devil's advocate for both sides of the issue.
With outreach programs like this, designed to introduce students to the idea of animal welfare, as well as allow them to come to their own decisions about whether careful animal research is of benefit, the Hayre fellows hope to educate students about what animal research is and how it works. And, as Bocanegra noted, this outreach is desperately needed. Right now, activists for animal rights most certainly have the loudest voice, as scientists are either too busy or too scared to speak up.
And the busy part is a very large part of the problem. Grants from NIH fund us to DO research, they don't fund us to TALK about it. They certainly don't fund us to spend valuable research time doing outreach to classrooms or to the public. And academia in general doesn't really reward outreach efforts when people are looked at for promotion or graduation. This is something that may have to change if scientists are to get word out to the public to convince them that what we do is worth supporting...and worth funding.
Another problem is that many scientists still feel that the data...speaks for itself. Look at all the cures, look at all the treatments, surely the public will realize that this is because of us! Unfortunately, there's a major disconnect between the protein you discovered that binds to gene A to release transcript B and the drug you found that controls it, and the drug and its marketing to the masses as a treatment for disease Y. Data these days may speak for itself, but it speaks in a language that only experts understand. People generally don't MAKE the connection that the creams, pills, and syrups they take, often on a daily basis, are the result of years of animal research. Heck, most of the time even I don't really give it a thought, I DO this for a LIVING, and if I don't think about it, I can only imagine that other people don't as well. Much as scientists want to think their work will speak easily to the public and that they don't have time, it won't, and they may need to make the time. And that may mean that academic institutions and funding agencies will have to make outreach important.
Because it IS important. It's important for the public to know what we do and why we do it. It's important for them to know where their tax dollars are going, and for what purpose. It's important for all of us to understand the small steps in basic science that underlie the great strides of modern technology and medicine. But the public won't know that if most scientists duck and cover, avoiding outreach opportunities and just hoping that their grants will get funded in an ever-worsening funding environment.
Luckily, outreach...isn't so hard. Many animal researchers are worried about becoming targets for threats and violence, but you don't necessarily have to stand up and make yourself seen. You can work through your professional societies to talk to people in government. You can write letters to your own government representatives. You can INVITE those representatives into your labs, to see what you do and what it all means. You can go into classrooms and talk about your work, or bring the classrooms to you and show them. You could even write a blog post on the internet. By reposting, retweeting, and passing it on, you can spread the word about funding and the necessity of careful animal research. And if all that still seems too much, you can always start with your family and friends. Tell them about what you do. Many of them may not even know. And tell them what it's all for, and what we're going through because of it. Because in this case, when the data speaks in a language only experts can understand, scientists have to stand up and do the talking.
Edited to Add: I will share a link when the SHARE materials go live, but right now they are still in program development. In the meantime, you can get many excellent materials on outreach and advocacy for responsible animal research at Americans for Medical Progress.