Faculty of 1000

Post-publication peer review

Common people

Posted by rpg on 22 April, 2010

While trolling through the new, shiny beta F1000 site (shh! I’m not supposed to tell you about that yet) I noticed that a paper from way back in September last year is still up there on our top ten lists. This was a commentary in J Neurosci saying, among other things, that the

time has come for the scientific community to make a concerted effort in condemning animal-rights extremism and in reaching out to the public to explain our work, its importance, and our commitment to the strictest ethical guidelines of animal research.

Furthermore, say the authors,

A special effort should be made to emphasize the irreplaceable role for nonhuman primates in neuroscience research to the public.

(10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3738-09.2009)

It obviously touched a nerve because it garnered 17 evaluations (and Steve P blogged it), second only to a controversial paper from 2005 on non-Mendelian inheritance in Arabidopsis (that actually could be wrong—also see this report and editorial in The Scientist.) I get this—most people, I think, have a hard time accepting that animals should be used for scientific or medical research. Especially if they’re cute, fluffy or primates. But we can not maintain the standards of medical care we have come to expect without such testing, despite the protestations of PETA (who refuse to condemn terrorism, by the way) and the rest of them. Despite the problems with animal models (and there are many; the crucial thing is that we do know the limitations and can use other models in addition), animal-based research is the only way to increase quality of life for human beings.

Whether we should treat human beings preferentially in this way is of course another matter and one for philosophers to debate. (Natural selection of course falls over if a species decides not to do the best it can for itself, but let’s not go there.) But I have no time at all for those terrorists who by their actions rate animal life over human life:

we have seen our cars and homes firebombed or flooded, and we have received letters packed with poisoned razors and death threats via e-mail and voicemail. Our families and neighbors have been terrorized by angry mobs of masked protesters who throw rocks, break windows, and chant that “you should stop or be stopped” and that they “know where you sleep at night.” Some of the attacks have been cataloged as attempted murder. Adding insult to injury, misguided animal-rights militants openly incite others to violence on the Internet, brag about the resulting crimes, and go as far as to call plots for our assassination “morally justifiable.”

So I’m pleased to read that the Information Tribunal, that settles Freedom of Information disputes, has ruled in favour of the University of Oxford protecting its staff from potential terrorists: in this case a particularly mischievous request apparently from PETA concerning an individual at Oxford (you can see the decision here: PDF).

It makes interesting reading (from the Understanding Animal research website):

PETA was not satisfied with this decision and appealed again. The case therefore passed to the Tribunal service. In evidence to the Tribunal judge, the University acknowledged that being transparent was good for science and that ‘if there was no special extreme threat here, the exposition of this information would be for the good’.

The Tribunal Judge upheld the previous ruling by the Commissioner, and agreed that the exemption was correctly applied. They also agreed that the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighed the public interest in disclosure.

[…]

We strongly support the rights of universities not to put individuals at risk.

Common sense prevails. At least in the UK: in the US, PETA tried to pull a similar stunt against the University of South Dakota. There, they also failed, thankfully: but only because they withdrew on a technicality. That’s not good enough—the law should be protecting researchers without question.

Unless you believe that animal ‘rights’ are worth more than those of humans, of course.

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