A grassroots campaign gets UK science to stand up for itself

From the JUN/JUL 2006 issue of Seed:

pro-test1.jpg Laurie Pycroft, frustrated by the sometimes-violent tactics of animal rights protesters, started a one-man counter-demonstration supporting Oxford’s new testing facility. His actions have fostered a pro-science movement.  Credit: Stephane Hue

OXFORD - After nearly 900 years of staring at the street below, the peculiar stone gargoyles that bedevil this city’s honey-colored colleges now have a vision to justify their queer expressions: hundreds of people marching in defense of “science, reasoned debate and, above all, the welfare of mankind.”

This ancient university town is, of course, no stranger to protest, but the students usually march against the establishment rather than for it. The motley crew of 850 locals that took to the streets on a cold February morning under the “Pro-Test” banner were unlikely revolutionaries representing a world first: a vocal group standing in support of animal testing for research purposes.

Nothing like their French cousins, who, locked in riotous protest for several weeks, rally, “To the barricades!” Oxford’s protest is a delightful, “No more threats, no more fear, peace and quiet wanted here!” But we do things differently in England.

Down the street, the half-built biomedical research facility was flanked by 150 anorak-wearing, anti-lab, animal-rights protesters, one of whom sported a badge reading “rats have rights.” There were speeches, rounds of chanting and cheering, and insults exchanged during the heavily policed hiatus between protests. Then everyone went home after what most agreed was a lovely day out.

But the fear surrounding this pro-science rally is unnervingly real. When the Animal Liberation Front declared war on Oxford University and its planned animal research laboratory on January 29th , it was with these words: “We must stand up, do whatever it takes and blow these fucking monsters off the face of the planet. We must target professors, teachers, heads, students, investors, partners, supporters and anyone that dares to deal in any part of the university in any way. There is no time for debate and there is no time for protest, this is make-or-break time and from now on, anything goes.”

The Pro-Test movement’s founder, incredibly, is a 16-year-old high school dropout who was tired of the incessant barrage of anti-lab propaganda shouted through loudspeakers by animal rights agitators, and “fed up with a debate monopolized by a vocal and occasionally violent few.” In late January, Laurie Pycroft bought card and a pen from a newsagent and constructed a placard that read: “Support Progress. Build the Oxford Lab!” and stood next to the antivivisectionists in an impromptu demonstration.

Pycroft’s description of the event in his blog generated huge interest among the university’s students, who joined him to form the PR-savvy group Pro-Test. The Guardian heralded the first march and stated that “we must…be unflinching in our support for animal experiments.” Pycroft, the paper editorialized, displayed “admirable dignity, a commitment that should shame a great many of his ‘elders and betters.’”

“This country has thousands of researchers paralyzed by fear. That’s a travesty of democracy,” declares leading Oxford neuroscientist Tipu Aziz. He is joined by the renowned Cambridge astrophysics professor Stephen Hawking, who said, “I applaud those who have the courage to stand up to the extremists.”

Ultimately, it was left to a 16-year-old boy to stand up for the future of scientific progress, galvanizing a beleaguered community and the media. Animal-rights activists rewarded him and his family with death threats and harassment, but still, he says, it’s worth the risk: “It’s about time that this became a two-sided argument, instead of just focusing on the views of the animal-rights protestors.”

Originally published May 25, 2006

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