During the latter half of 2017, a new development has reached us here at the CIN: we have come to the attention of opponents to animal research and animal rights activists. It was only a matter of time, one might say. After all, we have never shied away from openly communicating the fact that animal models play an important role in much of our research. This is evidenced in these very pages, but also in numerous press releases about our latest scientific successes, which usually explain quite candidly how these results have been obtained.
Still, it may have come as a bit of a surprise that after the strong and disproportionately furious campaigns directed at our colleagues at the MPI for Biological Cybernetics, the CIN is apparently the next target of local animal rights groups. The first indication that the CIN has come to the attention of animal research opponents was a somewhat unfriendly – and in our eyes slightly unbalanced – article in a student magazine published in July 2017. Since then, one local animal rights group in particular has performed a number of demonstrations on site. These focused on the supposed horrors committed by scientists engaged in primate research and took the form of ‘vigils’ (“Mahnwachen”), where a small group of protesters would start out with a short, noisy rallye, then stand silently for hours holding placards containing images and slogans.
We have thought long and hard about how to approach this situation, both long-term and in the immediate run-up to these demonstrations. Our first instinct was to engage the protesters in conversation. Surely an honest, respectful discussion must be in the interest of all concerned, especially with regard to a much-debated issue that is of interest to all of our society!
So we got some tea and coffee ready for the first round of protests in front of our building (on November 21st), and awaited the activists to share hot drinks, discuss our research and answer any questions they might have. And to our great satisfaction, this approach seemed to work very well indeed! A number of scientists, from PhD students to junior research group leaders to professors, spent over an hour out in the cold and discussed all kinds of animal research issues with some very interested people: they may have been opposed to using animals, but not to learning more about science, from scientists.
Our expectations that this approach might work just as well for future demonstrations proved, unfortunately, to be overly optimistic. The organisers of a second demonstration in December made sure to impress upon every participant the need to refrain from communicating with us. Yes, that is correct: the protesters were not at all interested in talking to us, and in fact took active steps to dissuade some of their number, who had let themselves be ‘ensnared’ by the promise of answers to uncomfortable questions.
In the end, the only fruit our efforts bore this time was a short video interview full of loaded questions like “how many monkeys are paralysed on one side at your institute?” and nonsense demands along the lines of “why don’t you put up webcams in all our labs so you scientists can be put under public scrutiny 24/7?” The interview has so far not been published, and the protesters refused to share it with us.
Moreover, our suggestion that we might come together at some point and have our scientists answer any questions on our research and our use of experimental animals, or to organise a public debate along those lines, were noncommittally brushed off. Even our offer to give the protesters a guided tour of our labs or the animal holding facilities was greeted with scornful suspicion, and has not been followed up on to date.
It is, we admit, overly hard to engage in an open debate under these circumstances. It seems fruitless to even try. These protesters are quite candidly saying that they do not want to talk; they just want us to stop. This absolute demand is a logical extension of a completely black-or-white philosophy, or dare we say ideology, that will not help the debate on animal research at all.
This stance precludes us even explaining what we do, much less why we do it. Given the deplorable lack of information on animal research in the public at large, that is a dangerous position – for us as scientists as well as the society we live in. Maybe science is just difficult to explain to non-scientists, and we have so far not done a good enough job of it: maybe we do not explain ourselves enough. But we must not and will not stop trying. Science is about nuance, about facets, about the “but”s and the “if”s and the “possibly”s, about contexts and about sifting the general from the specific. And maybe more than anything, science is about asking questions, it is about testing and re-testing one’s hypotheses as well as one’s findings, it is about debating one’s held opinions. Research needs explanation, lots of it, and it must seek out any chance to do so. So we do.
However, we think that a slugfest of unquestioned beliefs, groundless opinions and hardened positions is not useful at all. We will not let ourselves be drawn into a fight. But if you wish to debate with us? We are game.