Panelists at the Animals in Research discussion at Neuroscience 2012.

Panelists (left) Lisa Newbern, chief of public affairs, Yerkes National Primate Research Center, and Dario Ringach (right) of the University of California, Los Angeles, at the Neuroscience 2012 Animals in Research panel.

Why doesn’t the public know more about the important role of animals in research?  One answer, according to a standing-room-only panel discussion at Neuroscience 2012, is that scientists are not always comfortable or knowledgeable about how to communicate that value. It is vital that neuroscientists be more proactive and effective at communication, panelists agreed, or future animal research could be in doubt. 

“As neuroscientists, it’s important to be able to talk to the general public about the work that we do and the ways in which animal models contribute to medical progress,” said Sharon L. Juliano, professor of anatomy, physiology, and genetics, neuroscience, and cell and molecular biology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. Juliano chaired the Neuroscience 2012 Animals in Research Panel discussion, “Animals in Research: How Researchers Can and Should Talk about their Work,” before an audience of several hundred.

“Scientists generally aren’t accustomed to communicating about these issues to the public,” Juliano said. “We need to do a better job of letting people know about the obligation to carry out our work in a humane and ethical manner. We must also stress how important research is to efforts to cure disease and address the significant public health issues we face. Animal research has contributed to nearly every major medical advance over the last century, and it will continue to do so in the future.” 

Scientists on the panel, including David P. Friedman, associate dean of the office of research and professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest School of Medicine, acknowledged that the majority of scientists who work with animals do very little public engagement around the subject, noting that busy schedules and incessant pressure can make it more difficult. Friedman urged members to take a more active stance nevertheless “because no one is going to do it for us.”

Noting that several organized groups call for an end of the use of animals in research, Friedman stressed the urgent need for scientists to inform the public about the good animal research does for science and medicine and the resulting benefits to both human and animal health.

For more than a decade, SfN has featured a panel on the responsible use of animals in research at its annual meeting. It also works to empower scientists to effectively communicate the need for and value of animal research.

Dario Ringach, a professor of neurobiology and psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles Brain Institute, was a target of activist extremists 10 years ago and is a strong advocate for animal research. Citing an overwhelming consensus about the value of animal research, Ringach said 93 percent of scientists favor it, but only 52 percent of the public supports animal research. He stressed that the research community must build public confidence and counteract negative images by being visible in venues such as classrooms and other public platforms. Ringach is an active contributor to the “Speaking of Research” blog, which focuses on the importance of animal research in medical and veterinary science.

Lisa Newbern, chief of public affairs for the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, offered three communication strategies for conducting a proactive campaign supporting research with animals: 

  1. Know your audiences — when speaking to varied groups, understand where they’re coming from on the issue. For Newbern and Yerkes, that includes children in elementary, middle, and high schools; college and graduate students; medical students; civic organizations; science honor societies; senior citizen groups; and the media. 
  2. Develop key messages — what are the few concise points you want to make with every audience? Tailor them based on what you know the audience might think or feel. SfN, the Foundation for Biomedical Research, and your institutional public information officer are great sources to get started. 
  3. Use multiple communication channels — join digital platforms including blogs and online message boards; write op-eds for local papers and letters to the editor in response to news stories.

Tom Whipple, a science correspondent for The Times of London who has long covered animal research issues, pointed out that he hears regularly from opponents of animal research but rarely from “scientists saying this is important research.”

Whipple and Ringach also highlighted the importance of transparency in increasing public comfort with and understanding of animal research. Whipple pointed out that the public does not get the chance to see the way science operates in a lab environment.

“We need to invite people in. We have a moral obligation to explain our work. The public needs to hear our voices,” Ringach said. “Our work is done ethically. We are rigorously regulated and self-regulated. You need to go out of your comfort zone to fight on behalf of all research scientists.”

Find more about SfN’s animal research advocacy tools and examples of animal research achievements on BrainFacts.org.