Stuffed fox in Oxford Museum of Natural History. I don’t know how it died.
My January column for Popular Science UK is now online. This one’s on the public debate about animals in research.
I was interested in some debate surrounding some slightly dodgy reporting of a poll on animal testing. Except, considering the paucity of the debate on this topic – with many scientists arguably scared to speak about it - I really don’t think anyone can claim to have public opinion with them. It almost doesn’t matter how it’s spun. An Ipsos MORI poll on behalf of the Department of Business, Industry and Skills last October suggested two-thirds (66%) of UK adults support the use of animals in research as long as it is for medical research purposes. Except it also reported that 64% of the British public felt uninformed about science. I don’t think we’re doing a good enough job of building an informed debate here.
I was also interested to find that one of the recent polls asks about public attitudes to activism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the UK public seem most happy with handing out of leaflets (69%), organising petitions (68%) or writing letters (65%), but less comfortable with the idea of destroying/ damaging property (just 2%), “sending hate mail” (2%), using physical violence against those involved in animal research (1%) and “using terrorist methods e.g. car bombs, mail bombs” (1%). The cynic in me wonders if BIS asks these questions because they’d like to close down debate with stats to back up a view that activists do not speak for the public, but perhaps it’s useful to know.
There’s some interesting history to activism around animal testing. It’s not just people who are against it who violently take to the streets. If you’ve never heard about the “Brown Dog Affair”, it’s fascinating stuff. This started in February 1903, when UCL physiologist William Bayliss performed a dissection of a brown terrier in front of sixty or so medical students. Anti-vivisection activists condemned it as cruel and unlawful. Bayliss successfully sued for libel, but the anti-vivisectionists commissioned a small bronze statue of the dog as a memorial, unveiled in Battersea in 1906. Local medical students were angered at this, and their frequent attempts to deface the memorial led to a 24-hour police guard against what become known as the “anti-doggers”.
In December 1907, a thousand students – largely from London and Oxbridge medical and veterinary schools – marched through central London, clashing with a rather unlikely collaboration of suffragettes, trade unionists and police officers in what later became known as the “Brown Dog Riots”, many some brandishing effigies of the dog. In March 1910, fed up with dealing with this fuss, the local council removed the statue under cover of darkness. In 1985, the earlier skirmishes largely forgotten, a replacement was commissioned; a rather more placid looking statue (cuter, even), nestled in the park’s “Old English Garden” by the cricket pavilion, a shadow of its controversial ancestor.
Considering the lack of debate on the topic, sadly, that brown dog statue – stripped of much of his context, placidly hiding in Battersea Park – remains a good icon of where we are on this issue.
As ever, read the full piece on Popular Science UK’s archive page. And if you want to read February’s piece – on being able to admit fault in or about science, Margaret Thatcher, Mark Lynas and the overly honest methods hashtag – you’ll have to subscribe (or wait till next month).