How to Be Upfront About Our Work With Animals
It's important to communicate with lay audiences about animal research, but what's an effective approach? Mar Sanchez, a member of SfN's Committee on Animal Research, advises being transparent and proactive to confront the pervasiveness of misleading messages from animal rights groups. Here, she offers advice on facilitating conversations, engaging institutions and activists, protecting yourself against attacks, and more.
What approach should researchers take to communicate about their work with animals?
We have to be ready. We have to be willing to take time away from writing grants and papers to have these discussions. We have to build clear, short messages that connect emotionally and are understandable by anyone.
There’s been a lot of fear about talking in public about our work because we think that by saying what we do, we'll be targeted. Additionally, for many years, scientists using animals in research hid because we were told by our institutions to not call attention to our work or name the species we use.
However, these approaches backfired.
They created a communication vacuum that animal rights extremists took advantage of to promote misleading messages about our work. We weren’t filling that space, so they started controlling the message and confused the public about what we really do.
How can neuroscientists contribute to the narrative about animals in research?
Be transparent and proactive. You can start by putting a description of any animal research at your institution on its website, including how it is monitored and regulated, because that shows there is nothing to hide.
You could also open your doors, which is what we do where I work at the Yerkes National Research Primate Center. We hold public open houses and tours of the facilities and labs for a variety of audiences, including neighbors, schools, colleges, veterinary school students, and lawyers. You can show people what you actually do and how you do it. In some research institutions, they show videos of how a surgery goes. Talk about the anesthetics you use and the compassionate, post-operative care. Share how much you care about your research subjects and their welfare.
By inviting people in, you are disproving messaging from animal rights extremists saying that we are cruel to animals and that we don’t care about them. If you remove the myth that we're hiding something, we can start to dismantle those deceitful tactics.
Are there ways to be proactive against attacks from animal rights groups?
There are. Being proactive goes beyond being open about what you do. It means being prepared by working out a plan with your institution ahead of time.
It’s the same idea as getting health insurance. I’m healthy, but in case I get sick, I have a plan. Should something happen, you don’t want to make decisions out of panic that could potentially be harmful, like replying to a death threat. (You should forward those to your public relations office and the police — never reply to those.) Have the telephone numbers of your public relations office and the police ready.
To be prepared to respond in case you are under attack, you need to get your institution engaged if they’re not already. Make sure they understand the value of being prepared for an attack ahead of time.
As I mentioned earlier, preparedness involves proactive and reactive strategies. Institutions should post statements on their websites that outline any animal research at the institution and its value.They should also have an emergency plan to respond quickly and publicly in case a researcher comes under attack, which should include police protection of the individual, their family, privacy, and property.
Take advantage of your institution’s public relations office. They are experts in public communication. I visit my public relations office every time I have to talk to the public to get feedback. They can even train you how to speak to the press and the public.
SfN also has a lot of resources. BrainFacts.org has talking points and success stories, and Neuronline has webinars, videos, and articles that break down animal rights activists’ tactics, and ways to counter them.
You should also feel free to reach out to members on SfN’s Committee on Animals in Research because we are working to develop even more resources, tools, and messaging. These organizations also provide support and helpful resources:
When you’re giving a tour or talk, how do you connect with your audience?
Make a personal connection. Being honest and showing your humanity are important.
You can talk about your research as much as you want, but emotion will get people involved. You cannot be cryptic, detached, or overly scientific. You have to be colloquial and honest.
When I do tours of our primate center, I always tell people, "I love these animals.” By showing you care, the public understands that you take the animals’ welfare seriously (which is the opposite message animal rights extremists try to spread).
I also share my own ethical reasoning process that I use when I’m trying to decide if I should pursue a project. I balance the advantage of the potential knowledge we’ll gain with the potential harm and any of my ethical concerns. Sharing that shows that I don’t take my work lightly.
How do you shift your communication based on your audience’s background?
It’s important to read the audience by paying attention to their body language. When you see that a point is connecting with people, explore further. If something you’re saying causes a negative reaction, back off a little or find out why so they don’t get more defensive. Start a dialogue, if possible.
On tours of our center, we’ve had animal rights activists, and this technique proves especially useful. They tend to come with a negative perception of us, so I am always more gentle. I make sure to emphasize, "I'm with you, in the sense that I like animals, and I always search for the least invasive methods for research seeking to advance scientific discovery.”
With a completely pro-research group, I don't necessarily need to go into that level of detail. Instead, I dive deeper into the research, although I always mention our responsibility for the humane treatment of research animals. In order to make that differentiation, though, I have to understand how my audience is feeling.
You also wrote an op-ed for The Hill and had an essay published in Inside Higher Ed. Do you have any writing tips?
Writing is my favorite way of communicating because English is my second language. I can better express myself through writing. You write an op-ed in the opposite way we write our science. For an op-ed, place the main, take-home message first.
Op-eds are a wonderful channel because they can get a lot of attention from newspapers and social media, which expands your reach and opens the dialogue by allowing readers to comment.
Try to expand beyond scientific journals and publish in news outlets so that it will reach people beyond your colleagues.
And of course, remember to use facts and evidence.