Oxford University Gazette

Biomedical research at Oxford:
from the Vice-Chancellor

Since March, the University has been the target of a protest campaign which has made Oxford yet again into the focus for a debate of national social and political significance, this time concerning the use of animals in research. During the past six months, the Registrar, David Holmes, and I have sought and taken opportunities to explain Council's policy on this highly controversial and emotive subject, through channels including the University's own Web site and national media. At the same time, a number of those directly involved in research that will be relocating to our new building in South Parks Road have been presenting their own scientific arguments, although some have understandably felt unable to do this publicly, because of the experiences of individuals who have spoken on this subject in the past.

Through this and other means, we have sought to enter into a reasoned debate with those who do not share our view that regulated animal research remains a crucial element of the innovative and life-saving medical research for which Oxford is renowned internationally. However, the climate of fear and intimidation that has been generated by the unlawful activities of a small minority of protestors has made this impossible. People only indirectly linked to our new building have been attacked at home and inappropriate commercial pressure has been applied to those who had entered into legitimate contracts to work on-site.

By last month, it had become apparent that the expression of free speech within the law through weekly visible and voluble protests in South Parks Road and marches from time to time in central Oxford would never satisfy some protestors. The only way to ensure that our staff, students, other members of the collegiate University and our suppliers and contractors could be confident that they could go about their lawful business without fear of intimidation was therefore to seek the protection of an injunction. The injunction we have sought is intended to create a climate in which both sides of this argument can put their cases; it is designed to enable free speech by those who have been understandably too frightened to talk about their research into the causes of, and treatments and cures for, a number of life-threatening diseases.

As members of an academic community which has fostered some of the most innovative thinkers over many centuries, it is this freedom of speech that we must, above all, cherish and champion. We must be able to justify our actions to the committed believers in the equal rights of animals and humans, to the misinformed, and to those who have never before looked at the scientific arguments for and against this research. If we cannot talk freely about this important issue, then where will the gag of self-censorship created by fear be applied next?

We cannot simply rely on citing precedent to make our case; even though many millions owe their lives to treatments for diseases such as cancer, diabetes, polio and asthma developed using animals in the past, we must evaluate every proposal for a research programme that involves the use of animals today, however few and whatever species, in the light of our twenty-first-century medical knowledge and research techniques. That is why such proposals are considered in detail under the University's own ethical review process, even before any application is made to the Home Office for a licence, under its strict regulations.

As part of that process, those proposing research must demonstrate that they have done everything possible to reduce the number of animals to be used, to refine the processes involved to minimise any suffering caused and, wherever possible, to replace the use of animals with alternative research methods. Oxford is not only among the world's leading universities for biomedical research—from the development of antibiotics many decades ago, to today's work on vaccines against HIV and malaria—but it is also a leader in the establishment and use of techniques including cell or tissue cultures and image analysis to reduce, refine and replace the use of animals in laboratories (the so-called `3Rs').

For example, the computer-generated `artificial heart' model that Professor Noble and his colleagues have developed has enabled significant reductions in the numbers of animals needed in cardiological research in Oxford and elsewhere; the Integrative Biology Project is now building on this work to model the biological processes that take place in cancer cells. But even where methods such as this are used, there is still no reliable way to replicate the highly complex interactions of the many sophisticated systems within the body. Therefore, there remains a role for the regulated use of animals in research and will do for the foreseeable future.

It is for this reason that Oxford remains committed to the construction of a new biomedical research building in South Parks Road; it will replace a number of older facilities with an even better environment for animals that has been designed to reflect the latest understanding of husbandry and welfare. Much of the work that has shaped this approach to animal housing has itself been carried out in Oxford and is now being adopted around the world.

As we work to complete this new building, it is important that all members of the University understand the issues that are at stake in South Parks Road. If we were to be swayed by the illegal actions of a small group of protestors, much biomedical research in Oxford would cease or move to countries where regulation to protect animals is weaker than in the UK. Moreover, more importantly for us all, there would be no area of legitimate academic activity that could be guaranteed to be safe from such intimidatory tactics in the future.

So the secure future of this project is crucial not just to those who are, or will be, directly involved with one specific biomedical research building; it is crucial to everyone who believes that the strength of a university such as ours has grown over the centuries through a commitment to facing difficult choices, debating them and then reaching, and adhering to, a collegial decision based on our best academic judgment. Just as scholars in the past have not shied from adopting positions that some of their contemporaries found unacceptable, so today we will remain firm in our commitment to the regulated and necessary use of animals in research within Oxford.

28 September 2004

Oxford is one of the first universities in the UK to publish its policy on the use of animals in research, and additional information about the use of animals in scientific research, on its Web site at http://www.admin.ox.ac.uk/biomed/

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