Symposium Summary: Public Outreach—A Toolkit for Investigators

The APS Animal Care and Experimentation (ACE) Committee sponsored a symposium on Public Outreach at the Experimental Biology 2012 meeting in San Diego. Speakers included vision researcher Dario Ringach of UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute; laboratory animal veterinarian John D. Young of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles; and media relations expert Jim Newman of the Oregon Health and Science University. ACE Committee Chair Bill Yates chaired the session, which was entitled “Public Outreach and Animal Research: A Toolkit for Investigators.”

Yates underscored the urgency of public outreach. He noted that animal rights groups have built mainstream support and that their pressure campaigns have an impact on research. We have seen a decline in public support for animal research, and if we are to reverse this trend, scientists must become more forthcoming in addressing public concerns about both the value of the research itself and the care provided to animals.

Ringach provided a scientist’s perspective on engaging the public about animal research. He began by acknowledging that a major obstacle to outreach is the fact that “there are some really nasty people out there.” (Ringach has experienced home demonstrations and personal threats as well as threats against his family.) Nevertheless, according to Ringach, the decline in public support is a more serious threat than that posed by extremists. A 2009 poll by the Pew Research Center found that only 52% of the public supports animals in scientific research even thought 93% of the scientists polled support it. This raises the obvious question, why is public support so low? Ringach believes that the primary problem is the failure of the scientific community to tell the public and policy makers “what our work is about, why it is important, the care that goes in the work, the passion we feel about it.”

Engagement with the public should be a shared responsibility, according to Ringach. Scientists should speak up when science is attacked, while veterinarians and animal care staff should explain care and compliance issues. Ringach acknowledged that some institutional administrators do not want scientists, veterinarians, or care staff to speak out, and some do not believe that the news media should be allowed into the animal facility so the public can see what actually happens. He noted that “some people oppose research because of things that happen only in their imaginations” based upon images that appear to show animals suffering or photographs taken many years ago. Moreover, if the media are not allowed to visit animal facilities, they will believe the worst. All in all, he believes that opening the doors and increasing transparency will provide a net gain. Scientists need to work within their institutions toward the adoption of policies that increase transparency. Achieving that goal may require many intermediate steps to address various concerns. For example, scientists unaccustomed to speaking to the media and the public might need communications training.

Ringach emphasized that members of the public have valid ethical concerns so it is important to offer both scientific and ethical justifications for research. Even where there are disagreements of opinion, these are issues that researchers can and should discuss. Legitimate ethical concerns about the harm caused to animals still have to be balanced with the scientific importance of the work and what society stands to lose if the research were stopped. It is also important to develop authoritative resources about research, such as a new website, www.brainfacts.org, that was to go live in May. Ringach urged scientists to provide the lay public with explanations and descriptions of research that do not contain exaggeration or false hopes. At the same time, patients and families should be encouraged to share their experiences with the suffering caused by disease so the public can “put human suffering in the balance with animal suffering.”

Laboratory Animal Veterinarian John D. Young discussed his experience with public outreach over the past quarter of a century. In addition to his role as Director of Comparative Medicine at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Young is also the chairman of the board of the advocacy group Americans for Medical Progress (AMP). He explained that his philosophy is counter animal rights propaganda by taking advantage of daily opportunities to tell people what you do with animals, and why you do it. He contrasted six “anti-research lies” with three “simple truths” about animal research. The lies include that research is always cruel and painful; that researchers don't care about the well-being of animals; that animal research doesn’t produce cures because animals are not people; that research is unnecessary because most diseases are preventable; that alternatives are available; and that research diverts funds from patient care. Both AMP and APS have material on their web sites to help research advocates address these points. AMP’s FAQ is available at http://www.amprogress.org/AnimalResearchFAQ, while the APS has an FAQ for the general public at www.animalresearchcures.org as well as a set of talking points for research advocates at http://www.animalresearchcures.org/advocacytalkingpoints.htm.

The three simple truths Young offers are that animal research was vital in the past; that it will continue to be vital for foreseeable future; and that without animal research, medical progress will slow, stop, and reverse. Young said that he tries to respond to every letter and phone call raising questions about research at Cedars-Sinai. He also undertakes outreach to the staff within the medical center. He believes it is important to put a face on medical research using animals.

Jim Newman provided a media relations perspective on why investigators and institutions should talk about animal research. Newman, who is the Associate Director for Media Relations in the Oregon Health & Science University Office of Strategic Communications, said that while many people are concerned that if they speak out they will become a target of animal rights activists, the opposite turns out to be the case: Activists are least likely to pursue those who speak out and respond to allegations made about them.

Newman emphasized the importance of ensuring that the facility administration supports openness about its research. For that reason, it is important to bring the Vice President for Public Relations into the animal facility. It is also important for research facilities to reach out to their own employees.

Newman takes a pro-active stance by announcing the findings of every USDA inspection and every AAALAC site visit. He posts every USDA inspection report even if the institution was written up for an infraction. When this occurs, he also includes an explanation about how strict animal welfare oversight laws are. There is always a risk with an open door policy, but the media recognizes and appreciates the openness. Newman recommended that every research institution make sure its communications office is ready for a crisis and knows how it will respond. His philosophy is never to decline an interview request, to release documentation to back up statements made to the press, to monitor state and federal records requests, and to be ready to respond to what has been released.

OHSU was the subject of PETA hidden camera investigations in 2000 and 2007. The two incidents produced completely different outcomes in terms of media coverage and morale within the institution. The 2000 infiltration led to months of challenging press coverage, protests, community distrust, and low morale among staff. OHSU subsequently hired a dedicated press person for the primate research center and undertook a variety of steps, including crisis planning, outreach to the public and legislators, and developing closer ties with local law enforcement. When the 2007 infiltration came to light, OHSU responded immediately by holding its own press conference, allowing the media on site, releasing documents and video, and providing information to students and staff. As a result, the press coverage was generally quite balanced, the story came and went very quickly, and scientists at OHSU felt that the institution was standing behind them.

Related Items

Public Outreach—A Toolkit for Investigators

APS now offers online versions of the presentations given at the Animal Care and Experimentation (ACE) Committee’s EB2012 symposium on Public Outreach. The symposium featured insights into public outreach from a researcher, a laboratory animal veterinarian, and a media relations expert, each one experienced in standing up to animal rights tactics.

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