Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Science: Why the fur flies in the vivisection debate: Rhetoric and crude caricature obscure the facts about the use of animals in research, says Andrew Rowan

THIS Saturday, animal protection societies around the world will mobilise in protest against the use of animals in scientific research. Their actions may range from clandestine attacks on laboratories by supporters of the Animal Liberation Front and other underground organisations, to legal protests and demonstrations, such as the National Anti-Vivisection Society's rally in Trafalgar Square.

Like many other aspects of animal protection, the 'World Day for Laboratory Animals' started in Britain. It is held every year, on or around 24 April. This is the birthday of Lord Dowding, the wartime air chief marshal, who was a pioneer of anti-vivisection work and the founder, with Lady Dowding, of Beauty Without Cruelty.

The origins of the event are less important than the impassioned and polarised rhetoric that the subject of animal research arouses. The violence with which the debate is conducted hampers sensible decisions about public policy on the issue. Part of the problem is that each side tends to view the other in the most unflattering terms. The animal activist rejects the public image of science as an objective, rational search for Truth, choosing instead to caricature the animal researcher as at best cold and heartless or at worst a sadist. Animal welfare publications are packed with explicit or implicit images of animal torture. Their articles focus almost exclusively on the Mr Hyde behind the white-coated Dr Jekyll.

By contrast, scientists construct their own caricatures of animal activists as irrational and sentimental misanthropes who would rather see a child suffer than an animal die. With the lines so drawn, it is not surprising that we lack constructive public debate on animal research.

Both these images are a distortion of reality. Scientists, it seems, are as ambivalent about animal research as most of the public. Lynda Birke, a sociologist of science at Warwick University, reports that the 43 scientists she interviewed - from senior figures to people just beginning their research for a PhD, as well as technicians - have a wide range of reservations about animal research.

Arnold Arluke of Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, found that a significant number of researchers were reluctant to describe their experiments in conversations outside work. About a quarter of the scientists reported having nightmares when they first started using animals.

Recent studies of the animal welfare movement in the United States reveal that the caricature of the animal activist is equally wrong. Activists tend to be female, aged between 20 and 40, well educated (as measured by the proportion with a university education), well off, in white-collar jobs, and very active politically. However, according to Animals Agenda, the movement's magazine in the US, anti-vivisectionists do follow one stereotype. A poll of a thousand readers revealed that they had almost five times as many pets or 'companion animals' as the average citizen.

But there is no evidence for the view that they are particularly misanthropic. They may be devoted to the environment, but they also show a higher-than-average level of commitment to human causes, supporting the women's movement, civil rights and anti-apartheid. Neither do they appear to be simply anti-science, though they do seem more ambivalent than the average citizen about weighing the benefits of science and technology against the risks.

Why then, do the caricatures persist? In part, it is because the debate has been so strongly polarised for so long (more than a hundred years). These images have become strongly entrenched and almost comforting in their starkness. If one's opponents are so vile or emotional, then there really is no point engaging them in rational dialogue.

Beyond the appeals to side with innocent animals (the helpless 'innocence' of laboratory animals is an important factor in eliciting public support) or sick children, what are the facts about animal use in research? Tens of millions of animals, mostly rodents and rabbits, die every year in European and American laboratories. A significant proportion of these, perhaps 25-30 per cent, experience distress and suffering as a result of the research. None the less, laboratory animals do enjoy better housing and husbandry conditions than the billions of farm animals that are killed annually for meat.

Is all this animal research useless, as some in the animal movement contend? There are no unequivocal answers, although there are numerous examples of research that has led to significant medical advances, based, at least in part, on animal studies. Antibiotics were developed with the help of several important animal studies. The polio vaccine was made possible by the discovery that the virus could be grown in human cell culture (an alternative to the use of animals) but animal research and testing played a crucial role both before and after the vaccine became a reality. Other advances in public health may not have come directly from animal research, but findings from animal research (for example, the identification of important pathogens) were important in supporting and furthering public health initiatives.

The scientific establishment has, at times, claimed too much credit for animal research. But the dissimilarities between animals and humans, often quoted by opponents of animal research, do not necessarily invalidate the results. In fact, the differences between animals and humans, like the differences between individual humans, have provided important clues to various biological phenomena and diseases.

The moral questions raised by animal research admit no easy answers. The deliberate killing and inflicting of distress on healthy animals should be avoided; all the scientists I have spoken to state that they would not use animals in research if they felt there were other equally suitable techniques available. In other words, scientists and anti-vivisectionists share the same goal - the elimination of laboratory animal use.

Where they differ is in the emphasis each places on that goal. Most scientists are, not surprisingly, more concerned with solving their research problems than on finding alternatives to animals. Nor is there agreement on a realistic timetable for achieving the goal. Activists want animal research stopped immediately or in the next few decades. Most scientists argue that even if it does prove possible, it will take centuries to replace animal experiments.

If both sides could at least agree that they share the same ultimate goal, the senseless and inaccurate rhetoric would disappear, to be replaced by a debate about how much effort should be put into the search for alternatives.

The author is director of the Centre for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University, Massachusetts.