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German research agencies condemn animal-rights attack on neuroscientist

A timid silence often follows public attacks on scientists who use animals in their research. But today a group of ten heavyweight academic organisations in Germany shed its habitual reserve and raised a stern collective voice against animal-rights activists whose recent advertising campaign targeted an individual neuroscientist.

The activists overstepped the line between freedom of expression and unacceptable defamation, said the group, known as the Alliance of Science Organisations, which includes the Max Planck Society, the DFG grant-giving agency, the Conference of University Rectors and the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. In particular, it said, activists depicted Andreas Kreiter, who uses monkeys in his research, as ‘not quite human’.

The row began on 16 April, when the Tierversuchsgegner Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Opponents of Animal Experiments Federal Republic of Germany) placed an aggressive full-page advertisement in two national quality newspapers and three regional newspapers.

The advertisement comprised a long treatise against animal research. It focused on Kreiter, from the University of Bremen, but also called on “all citizens” to treat every animal experimenter “with contempt and to denounce their work publicly”.

Its headline read “Kreiter cold-bloodedly carries on”, a reference to a federal court’s recent decision that local authorities in Bremen acted illegally in trying to stop his research. This legal decision had led Kreiter to believe his 16-year struggle to continue his studies into mechanisms of attention, one of the pillars of consciousness research, had finally ended. In the late 1990s Kreiter and his family had to be placed under police protection.

The advertisement set Kreiter’s photograph next to a picture of a primate with a number tattooed onto its chest, and with its head secured against movement during an experiment. It claimed that Kreiter’s experiments cruelly torment primates without yielding any medical advances.

This personalisation of the animal debate helped to spur the Alliance into action, as did the advertisement’s provocative opening quotation, attributed to neurologist and animal protectionist Herbert Stiller: “Animal experimenters are a particular type of creature – one should not casually call them human.”

The citation also precipitated an unprecedented debate in the press, because the right to human dignity is considered sacred in Germany and is enshrined in the first article of the country’s post-war constitution. During the Nazi era, categories of people like Jews, gypsies or the handicapped were declared to be ‘sub-human’ and killed.

In its public statement, the Alliance “expressly and decisively condemns” the advertisement. It says that animal research is necessary and is carried out under the tight contol of the authorities.

Welcoming the Alliance’s first public defence of animal research, neuroscientist Stefan Treue, director of the German Primate Centre in Göttingen, says that the affair “reinforces the recognition of the scientific community that we really need a public information platform where citizens and journalists can learn the facts about why animal research is needed”.

Kreiter says he is disappointed that the debate around his work has been reactivated. “This type of attack is hardly new for me,” he adds. “But these advertisements were particularly aggressive.”




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    Joachim Hartinger said:

    Finally they say something about the necessity of animal experiments – not only for medical research but also about their worth in order to better understand how biology works, the world we live in and our place in it. And maybe about the worth of science as such, like arts ad philosophy for example. By the way: hte right to do researh is enshrined in article 5 of the German constitution, aside of freedom of art and liberty of the press.
    Sadly enough, I couldn’t read anything about it in a German newspaper.
    And I’d wished they would do so much more often and intensely, and that they would have done so much longer already, like in the US or maybe even better. I don’t have to tell you why and how (also animal) research has participated in the development of our societies, medicine and vaccinology and apprehension of the environment and real dangers to it. But we all should communicate it much more in schools, newspapers and where ever we live. At best together with the rights animals have and the 3R concept and how we personally apply it to our research.
    And – if necessary – we should of course also have it in mind by designing our experiments and take care of the rights and dignity of the animals we work with and to whom we owe so much.

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    Dario Ringach said:

    “The activists overstepped the line between freedom of expression and unacceptable defamation…” Indeed. One problem is that they are allowed to do so too often and without consequences. It is true that scientists need a platform “where citizens and journalists can learn the facts about why animal research is needed”. It is also the case there is an increased need to provide legal support those that have been unjustly defamed and harassed by animal rights activists and wish to seek appropriate remedies.

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