In an effort to tackle the knowledge gap between scientists and the public, and to defend animal research, Understanding Animal Research’s communication strategy of proactive transparency serves as a model to scientists, says Lev Tankelevitch.
In the UK, almost half of the public believes that some animal research goes on without an official licence. The situation is similar in the US. This ignorance finds its way to policy makers around the world who dismiss academics and deride science. Clearly, there is a profound imbalance in the knowledge available to scientists and to the rest of society about animal research.
This situation is precarious. It leaves both the public and policymakers vulnerable to misinformation from animal rights extremists who craft catchier stories and yell louder than scientists. Recently, to defend research, neuroscientists Allyson Bennett and Dario Ringach have issued a call to action to all scientists tied to animal research, proclaiming that it is a duty to engage the public about their work. The principles underlying this duty are clear: science policy must be based on a public mandate and a mutual understanding between science and society. But the concern is also pragmatic — scientists must be able to defend research that they consider valuable.
To defend animal research, scientists need to understand how to effectively communicate this kind of work, and why some strategies are more promising than others. In this field, the UK organisation Understanding Animal Research (UAR) is a veteran. Occupying a unique space between “the public, the media, policy makers, schools, and the scientific research community”, they ensure that the conversation around animal research happens transparently, with scientists taking a leading role.
Strength in numbers
UAR CEO Wendy Jarrett believes co-operation is the way to relieve the anxiety of institutions and scientists who worry about being singled out in the public eye. As a result, UAR has brought together many of those involved under a coherent framework: the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research. It has been signed by 109 UK universities, companies, charities, funding bodies, and others pledging to proactively become transparent about their role in animal research.
“Everybody moves forward together, taking baby steps…until you realise that this is something that [the public is] discussing as a day-to-day issue,” Jarrett says. For example, the Concordat played a big role in Leicester University’s willingness to allow journalists an unprecedented look into their animal research facilities.
A far-reaching agreement like the Concordat is a big step, but scientists can begin by pushing their own institutions to implement policies of transparency which ensure that they have the support required to communicate their work to the public.
Before starting, correct misconceptions
One of UAR’s main tasks is to counter misinformation at every instance — for example, the latest claim that existing alternatives are enough to make primate neuroscience unnecessary. UAR works with journalists, supporting them in accurate science reporting, and connecting them with scientists who can ensure such accuracy. Even better, UAR recruits scientists to the Science Action Network, in which they are encouraged to respond to inaccurate media with their own expertise. This is as simple as replying to misinformed Tweets to offer a different perspective — a small act, no doubt, but impactful if performed in a concerted effort. Chris Magee, UAR’s head of Policy and Media, believes this is a necessary prerequisite. “You tick off very quickly the things that you think people will be misled about, and then you move on to educating them within that space,” he says.
Cater to the public’s interests
This next step, beyond fighting misinformation, is where UAR’s proactive strategy kicks in. “If you’re reactive, you spend half of your three sentences you’re given in the newspaper correcting misconceptions,” Magee says. Instead, UAR directs the public’s attention to animal research by capitalising on their interests. For instance, they push for popular coverage of medical breakthroughs to highlight the role of animal experiments, a strategy that Bennett and Ringach endorse. “Consider the opportunities missed in stories reported on the development of neural prostheses,” they write, referring to an area that relies heavily on basic research in monkeys. This approach emphasises the methods behind discoveries, an aspect often neglected in popular science reporting, and ensures that the public is listening.
Be proactively transparent
UAR is also expanding its proactive approach beyond journalism. For example, they are now piloting projects which directly connect patients with animal research labs whose work is relevant to their condition, similar to the campaign by the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute, in which patients visited the institute’s labs. In parallel, UAR’s education team brings scientists into classrooms, or inversely, brings the students directly into the labs.
The organisation has even more ambitious aims. Calling it one of her “pie in the sky” ideas, Jarrett mentions the concept of filming and showcasing government inspections inside animal research facilities. Legality and logistics aside, the idea epitomises the kind of transparency that UAR strives for at all levels of animal research. Likewise, scientists, in their engagement efforts, have to convey not only that their work is critical for medicine, but also that it is done under the strictest and most careful regulations. “While such basic concepts may be obvious to scientists, it is a mistake to assume that they are obvious to others or are unimportant,” write Bennett and Ringach.
Listen to the public
As much as UAR works on behalf of scientists to educate the public, they are also responsible to the public, who count on them to engage policy makers about animal welfare issues. Of course, scientists must be central in this dialogue. For example, given that both the public and the scientific community are concerned about a lack of openness between labs, one aim is to push for better data sharing practices which would ensure an efficient use of animals and speed up research progress. UAR also lobbies policy makers for increased funding for improvements or alternatives to animal research. Scientists have a responsibility to constantly push these ideas into the spotlight and relate them to animal welfare.
No better time than now
Having experienced years of extremist violence, the UK scientific community has had to think carefully about their communications strategy. The result is a UAR-led campaign of transparency among UK institutions which not only preserves animal research, but also engages the public as a valuable partner in the conversation about science. “People see that communication actually helps public understanding, and improved public understanding helps to keep that safe environment that we have now,” Jarrett says. Around the world, scientists need not wait for a better reason to secure a safe and transparent research environment.
Lev Tankelevitch is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford, where he is studying the neuroscience of learning and attention. In addition to research, he is drawn to writing, public policy, and the intersections between science communication, art, and design. Follow him on Twitter @lev_tank.