Over the past few decades, those opposed to animal-based health studies have gradually, yet significantly, increased their influence on public opinion, and many times they have done so in alarming ways. Op-eds and letters to the editor authored by these groups frequently include misleading statistics. Caring scientists and animal care staff are regularly portrayed as cruel or even downright evil.
At the same time, we’re also witnessing a major shift in the animal rights movement. Decades ago, animal activism was almost entirely a liberal cause. That’s changed with the launch of new opposition organizations paired with attempts by existing groups to appeal to more conservative audiences by arguing that animal research is "taxpayer waste."
Thankfully, research organizations around the globe are increasingly recognizing the need to expand public communications and education about the continued need for animal studies. But we have a lot of catching up to do, and we must move quickly. Long-term activist campaigns seeking to curtail or end animal studies have already had a significant impact.
Surveys by two major polling organizations reflect the seriousness of the issue. According to a 2021 Gallup survey, 52% of participants currently consider "medical testing on animals" to be morally acceptable while 44% are opposed. In 2001, the level of support was measured at a much more comfortable 65%. Data collected by the Pew Research Center suggests a majority of Americans are now opposed to animal studies. In a 2018 survey by Pew, 52% of Americans say they are against the practice compared to 47% in favor.
As troubling as these numbers are, a silver lining can be found if one looks more closely at the data:
- 63% of those with a high level of science knowledge are more inclined to approve of animal use in scientific research.
- General education levels also play a factor. Those with a postgraduate degree (59%) are more likely to be accepting of the use of animals in scientific research than those with a high school degree or less (40%).
In other words, the more Americans understand the biomedical research process, the more likely they are to support necessary health studies in animals. The polls thankfully provide a roadmap for changing public opinion. They show us that we must do much more to educate Americans about the health research process. We must also highlight the reality that animal studies benefit both humans and animals.
However, while a growing number of research organizations recognize the need for additional public engagement, many have no idea where to begin. Institutional leaders and their security staff are also frequently concerned by proposals to expand communications about animal research, worrying that doing so will make their facilities a bigger target for opponents.
So, what's the best path forward? What are the initial steps an organization can take that are both safe and effective? Here are some suggestions to consider.
Expand Your Website to Increase Public Engagement
Several institutions—including many that have been targeted by activist groups in the past—have created entire sections of their websites for lay audiences, webpages aimed at explaining and illustrating the important role of animals in research. And these efforts have made a difference. Critics now have a reduced impact on these organizations and misinformation can be immediately countered with documents and data. Items that can be posted on sites such as these include:
- Details about the kinds of research that is conducted at your facility and the individuals who will benefit.
- Details on any animal benefits from your research. Frequently, the public fails to recognize veterinary medicine advancements require animal studies as well.
- Information about the several layers of policies, laws, and protections in place to ensure research animals are treated with kindness and respect. This section can include details about USDA inspections, NIH requirements, OLAW reporting, AAALAC accreditation, along with information about internal animal welfare systems such as IACUCs and on-site veterinary staff.
- USDA inspection reports along with supplementary information. Some organizations upload these documents demonstrates a commitment to transparency. The supplementary data provides critical context and proactively counters misleading claims.
- A continually expanding list of facility press releases where advancements feature the use of animals.
- Photos and videos of animals being studied at the institution.
Consider Creating Fact Sheets and FAQs for Research Projects Likely to Generate Activist Attention
Let's face it, certain types of research—studies in nonhuman primates, canines, or felines—are much more likely to be criticized by animal research opponents than rodent studies. We’re not saying that doesn't ever happen; some groups do indeed campaign against rat and mouse research. But when you investigate which types of allegations tend to generate significant media attention, most take place with larger animals.
When a project arises that is more likely to face opposition, consider creating a general fact sheet and/or FAQ that explains the research to lay audiences. These documents can be helpful in proactively answering standard questions and also likely criticisms. They can also serve as the basis for a wide variety of communications including:
- Messaging for lawmakers or other key parties.
- Public handouts if questions about the research arise in a public setting.
- Social media responses.
- Responses when an institution receives emails or letters from concerned citizens.
Review Recent Press Releases and Determine if Additional Information About the Role of Animals Should Be More Prominently Featured Moving Forward
Years ago, it was commonplace for research institutions to greatly limit or even leave out references to research animals in press releases and other public-facing documents. In recent years, this practice has significantly diminished. Facilities now commonly highlight when animals were involved in research. However, in some cases, that information is not disclosed upfront. This is why we strongly advise that the role of animals be highlighted in the headline or within the first paragraph. The public needs to understand just how frequently animal studies advance and transform medicine.
Engage With Existing Outreach Programs and Initiatives
Americans for Medical Progress and other advocacy groups have created popular outreach programs like AMP’s Biomedical Research Awareness Day to assist facilities in engaging with individuals inside and outside of their organizations. A wide variety of materials that explain the research role of primates, canines, rodents, and countless other species are also readily available and free to use.
Finally, Don't Forget About Your Most Important Resource: Employees
Recognize that some of your strongest and most dedicated advocates are the employees who work within your organization. Research and animal care staff are often more than willing to take part in highly effective outreach initiatives such as public talks, school lectures, and tours. However, before doing so, many would like some assistance in learning how to effectively communicate about their research or animal care work. Organizations should develop methods for assisting and collaborating with internal advocates. After all, these face-to-face engagements are often the most effective and lasting.
Americans for Medical Progress has extensive experience in both developing new outreach initiatives and assisting organizations in designing and launching their own programs. Contact us if we can be of assistance.
Jim Newman serves as communications director for the nonprofit health research advocacy group Americans for Medical Progress. AMP supports the advancement of human and animal medicine through responsible and highly regulated research in animals. Jim previously directed media relations at Oregon Health & Science University and the Oregon National Primate Research Center. He also oversaw external communications at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Guest contributors are valued members of our community willing to share their insights. The views expressed in their posts do not necessarily reflect those of PRIM&R or its employees.
The assumption laid bare in this post is that individuals concerned with the use of non-human animals in research are uneducated nimrods, who collectively assume all scientists are “evil.” This perception does nothing to positively engage the community of individuals who care for non-human animal rights, welfare, and the future of testing alternatives.
Transparency and thoughtful engagement should be the key concern of IACUC committees seeking to change perceptions about research using non-human animals. That is, IACUC committees should welcome community members, especially those with welfare concerns, to observe meetings, serve on committees, and have access to meeting minutes. Committees should also explicitly address, in clear language, how the 3 to 4 R’s (if you count, REJECT) are considered by committee members in relation to every approved protocol.