Oxford Scientific Activists Take Their Message to the Streets

I published the following post on my former blog on June 3rd, but I'm republishing it here because it serves as an great introduction to the inspirational scientific activism currently taking shape in Oxford.

The only sounds were those of passing traffic and the whispers of interested observers as close to 1,000 people marched together in silence today down Oxford's High Street. Although the stated reason for the quiet was to avoid disturbing the many Oxford students currently taking their exams in the nearby Examination Schools, the symbolism was as tangible as the warmth of the brilliant sunlight shining favorably on the large crowd through a rare cloudless English day.

Supporters of animal research have been silenced for years by the intimidation and fear tactics of animal rights extremists. But, just as the chants in favor of research, science, progress, and reason resumed today when the crowd turned north to march toward the Science Area, so to was it apparent that a new era of speaking out in favor of science had begun. Originally sparked by Pro-Test when it first took its message to the streets of Oxford in February of this year, the movement has since ignited into a wildfire of support, reaching the highest levels of the UK government, including Prime Minister Tony Blair. What really matters, though, is that this is a grassroots movement that draws on the efforts of ordinary students and citizens, both scientists and non-scientists alike, to give a voice to those who have been quiet for so long.

Pro-Test's second march--held today, June 3rd--carried on the momentum built in the first, drawing on the participation of concerned citizens in a true show of scientific activism. Although this time the Pro-Test organizers' and volunteers' uniforms were more professional, the sound system more powerful, and the endorsements more elite, more than anything the march was a show of democratic participation that is rarely seen in the sciences.

As I approached the demonstration, which began on Parks Road, I could hear the chants from almost a block away:

Animal research saves lives! Build the Oxford lab!

What do we want? The Oxford Lab! When do we want it? Now!

Pro-science! Progress! Pro-Test!

Stand up for Research! Stand up for Science!

The signs the participants displayed were just as varied, most brought by individuals or groups, but some apparently made by the Pro-Test organizers. The energetic chanting continued until around noon, when Pro-Test committee member Tom Holder, who would once again be the emcee for the event, got on the loudspeaker and kicked things off. After a short speech by Pro-Test's sixteen-year-old founder Laurie Pycroft, Alan Duncan took the stand. Duncan, a member of parliament from the Conservative Party, described how both corporate and scientific interests have crumbled in the face of animal rights extremism in the past and why this situation needs to change. Going into the broader implications of the animal rights debate, he described an ongoing "battle to stop the pollution of a child's mind" by anti-science propaganda.

MP Alan Duncan addresses the crowd

Next up was someone who has become a familiar face at Pro-Test events: Evan Harris, one of Oxford's members of parliament and the Liberal Democrats' science spokesman. He spoke about the same topics he talked about at Pro-Test's recent public meeting, including the need to balance freedom of speech with protecting the university and its scientists and his push for mandatory labeling of pharmaceuticals with a statement about the role animal research had in developing the product. He also chastised other governmental officials, including the health secretary and the development minister, for not stressing the role animal research has played in the types of developments that they regularly publicize or use in their work.

After reading two endorsements, from former Home Secretary Charles Clark and Andy Burnham--a Minister of State at the Department of Health--Tom Holder introduced the next speaker, Ken Fleming, who currently heads the Medical Sciences Division at Oxford. He spoke of Oxford's proud legacy in the medical sciences and the need for animal research if this is to continue. To further justify the pro-research cause he noted "animal research is legal here... and more tightly regulated than anywhere else in the world."

As another endorsement, of sorts, Tom Holder then read excerpts from a recent Guardian article by professor Robert Winston, including the following:

How disgraceful that a 16-year-old boy has put the medical and scientific establishment, drug companies and universities to shame. Laurie Pycroft was in Oxford when he was outraged to see animal rights protesters marching through the street. He wrote out his own pro-testing placard and waved it furiously. Within days Laurie had enthused thousands of students and academics. The whole tenor of the discussion changed, and a debate at the Oxford Union voted massively in favour of animal research....

...The last big drug disaster in the UK happened because of a lack of animal research. Four decades ago, when thalidomide's awful effects were revealed, the drug was returned to the lab to be tested on pregnant animals for the first time. Birth defects were quickly seen in mice and rabbits. This prompted an overhaul of the legislation and is the basis for our laws on drug development.

Emcee Tom Holder reads the endorsements

Next up was author Niki Shisler, who, like at the Pro-Test public meeting, talked from a personal perspective, focusing on her disabled child. She believes medical research involving animals is particularly important because "without that research, we face a very bleak future." She also noted that "there has been a pitiful silence in this country from the end users of medicines," and instead these people (i.e. everybody) should also stand up for the animal research that made these drugs possible.

The final speaker on Parks Road was Alison Eden, a medical writer and a member of the Pro-Test committee. She lightened the mood with a story about visiting her leg-waxer. The point of the story, though, was that when asked what her plans were for the weekend, she lied instead of talking about participating in a march for animal research. I found the story somewhat unbelievable, since she's apparently not afraid to stand up in front of hundreds of people at such an event, but it did serve to emphasize the intimidation that many have felt around this issue. She noted something that I have stressed before, that "the organizers of [the animal rights organization] SPEAK are against animal research regardless of whether it works," although they do not openly admit that, and that they "hide behind junk science," insisting that computer models and tissue culture work can replace animal research. "This isn't science," she said. "This is fiction!"

The first round of speeches concluded around 12:30, and as we began marching, the chants resumed as well. The march took us to High Street, and then back to the origin on Parks Road. Although the march down High Street was silent, the crowd began chanting again when we turned off of High Street onto Longwall Street. There seemed to be some improvisation at this point, as the first chant was a before unheard and somewhat awkward "Animal research, we want more. It's what we need to get a cure." This caused someone nearby to comment sarcastically that he was confused because "It's not on the chant list." The presence of a "chant list" at all seemed to once again highlight the strange and unique nature of a pro-science march. The organizers soon returned to the more established and catchier chants we were all used to, though, as we continued the march down Parks Road and South Parks Road toward the building site of the new biomedical research center, which has come to embody the debate over animal research at Oxford.

During the march, I had the opportunity to observe the crowd to get a better idea of who was there. The crowd was incredibly diverse in a variety of ways. The ages of the people there spanned the entire spectrum, from toddlers to the elderly, although the largest demographic appeared to be university students. The viewpoints expressed in the crowd were just as diverse. Although supporting scientific research is in many ways an establishmentarian cause, many people present seemed to buck that trend. At one point, a girl I didn't know asked if she could borrow my pen. She quickly scrawled out a sign that, somewhat ironically, read "ANARCHISTS AGAINST CANCER". Also present was a group called The Manifesto Club, which "supports scientific development, experimentation and human progress," including supporting the goals of Pro-Test. However, it "opposes legal injunctions against anti-vivisectionists," because "if animal rights activists are not free to demonstrate for what they believe in, we all lose our freedom to engage in democratic protest." The diversity in demographics and opinion here stands in stark contrast to the more monolithic nature of the animal rights protests.

Across the street from the construction site, the event concluded with three speakers. The first was Colin Blakemore, the head of the Medical Research Council. He spoke about the current increase in acceptance of animal research "one of the most remarkable changes in public perception," effectively making animal research "no longer controversial."

Peter McNaughton gives his support from Cambridge

Despite the ongoing Oxford/Cambridge rivalry, the next speaker was Peter McNaughton, head of the Department of Pharmacology at Cambridge. He tore down the idea that animal researchers go into the lab looking forward to cutting up animals, emphasizing that generally researchers are reluctant to work on animals at all, and approach the work with a great deal of reverence and respect. He also took on the idea that tissue culture and computer models can replace animal research in drug development. He noted that these techniques are already used very heavily and currently eliminate many potential drugs, but they cannot prove that a drug will be effective or safe, something that animal research is much more adept at. The presence of a Cambridge head of department, as well as several government officials, served to demonstrate how the Pro-Test movement had grown to be something much bigger than just countering animal rights protesters in Oxford.

Iain Simpson on the mic, accompanied by Tom Holder

The day concluded with a surprisingly impassioned speech by Iain Simpson, another Pro-Test committee member. Although the energy was needed by a crowd that had just participated in a long march in an event starting to drag through its second hour, Simpson's speech was over-the-top at times and almost had the feel of a Howard-Dean-in-Iowa moment. It never quite reached that level, though, and instead the event ended on a high note, leaving the crowd looking forward to the next march and energized to do something about the situation in the meantime. "We are here because animal research saves lives, and we are not just justified in doing this but we have a moral responsibility to do so!" Simpson yelled. "We are the silent majority and we are finding our voice!"

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