After Attacks on Researchers, Caution and Steadfastness

Aug. 6

After Attacks on Researchers, Caution and Steadfastness

In many ways, the University of California at Santa Cruz was already prepared when firebombs ignited the house of one researcher and the car of another at nearly the same time early Saturday morning.

After all, it wasn't the first attack against a Santa Cruz faculty member whose research involves experimentation on animals. Since that last incident in February, and more broadly over the past year, research universities, including the University of California system, have made more concerted efforts to coordinate their responses to threats, harassment and vandalism from self-styled animal liberation activists who many agree may be escalating their campaign.

And this time, there was at least some cause for vigilance: A "Wanted"-style flyer, found at a local coffee shop last week, listed the names, addresses and photographs of 13 UC Santa Cruz researchers.

Within the UC system, the bulk of biomedical research that involves animals takes place at the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses. Both have been recent targets for intimidation, with the home of one UCLA researcher singled out on two separate occasions - flooded with a garden hose last October, followed by a firebombing attempt in February. The latest incidents in Santa Cruz, during which one scientist who experiments on mice was forced to help his two children down a ladder from a second-story window, follow a February break-in by masked intruders who interrupted the birthday celebration of a professor's daughter.

Sometimes, attacks are preceded by warnings or followed by announcements claiming responsibility. Last Friday, according to The San Jose Mercury News, a group called Stop Animal Exploitation Now! sent out a message calling attention to what it called "mounting violations of the animal welfare act." Police are reportedly investigating SAEN along with other animal liberation groups. So far, there has been "no communiqué claiming the action," according to Jerry Vlasak, press officer at the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, which supports the animal liberation movement and posts anonymous messages from various groups. But a local TV station reported that the Animal Liberation Front had done just that.

Already, the city of Santa Cruz is offering $30,000 - half of which came from the university - to anyone with information that leads to arrests of the perpetrators.

This latest round of attacks is causing universities across the country to redouble their efforts to protect scientists, but in many cases they are limited in what they can achieve through prevention efforts, educational efforts and vigilance. In addition to concerns about safety, advocates for biomedical research also worry that continued threats and attacks could create a sort of chilling effect as young researchers decide not to pursue investigations that could invite unwanted harassment or as funding dries up for experiments seen as attracting negative publicity.

The evidence is anecdotal and inconclusive, but Frankie L. Trull, founder and president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, which promotes the humane use of animals in scientific experiments, said the possibility that up-and-coming scientists might opt for other lines of inquiry could "potentially be a huge loss to all of our futures."

Initial Response

After the attacks early Saturday, the response from UC Santa Cruz and research organizations was swift. Calling the firebombings "criminal acts of anti-science violence," Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal issued a statement on Saturday. "These are odious assaults on individuals and on the principles of free inquiry by which we live," he said.

On Monday, University of California President Mark G. Yudof followed up with a statement of his own. "The attacks on members of the academic community that occurred this past weekend in Santa Cruz are outrageous and abhorrent," he said. "Acts of violence and intimidation such as these are unacceptable, and they continue a troubling pattern, seen at UCLA and other UC campuses, that should be repugnant to us all. These acts threaten not only our academic researchers and their families, but the safety and security of neighbors in our communities as well.

"A few months ago, the chancellors of all 10 University of California campuses issued a joint statement expressing their condemnation of such attacks and reiterating their commitment to upholding the highest standards in the care and ethical treatment of animals. I join the chancellors in their statement. As we remain steadfast in our support of the free, civil and lawful expression of views, we are equally unwavering in our commitment to protect our faculty, staff and students and to hold the perpetrators of these acts accountable."

Yudof also renewed a call to support state legislation that would clarify that intimidation of researchers is not free speech and add a trespass misdemeanor that would specifically bar people from entering an academic researcher's home "for the purpose of chilling or interfering with the researcher's academic freedom." (The UCLA campus took the step earlier this year of suing several animal liberation groups and seeking an immediate restraining order against the defendants.)

Guy Lasnier, a spokesman for UC Santa Cruz, agreed that "there has been an escalation ... and this is probably the most egregious case of this kind of thing even nationally, is what the FBI is saying."

The university is offering support to those affected and their families, as well as security for their homes and offices - "a place to stay, counseling, whatever, those offers are out there," Lasnier said. At the same time, UC Santa Cruz is working with local law enforcement officials. For example, he noted, not all of the information on the coffee shop flyer was accurate: "some don't do any kind of work with animals, some of the addresses were wrong," and police are working to protect those listed.

On Monday, students and professors organized an ad-hoc rally at the campus's main entrance holding signs such as "Violence Is Not the Answer," "Challenge Disease Not Medical Research" and "Humans Are Animals Too!" The rally's announcement stated, "The demonstration is not about whether or not research on animals is good, bad, etc. This demonstration is about fundamental aspects of society, about peaceful tactics towards things/situations we do not like."

Beyond Santa Cruz, institutions have teamed up on their own or through larger groups. Patrick White, vice president of federal relations for the Association of American Universities, said the organization drafted a statement last October in response to concerns from directors of research at its member institutions. The group has also worked to help coordinate two issues, he said. At some research universities, competing law enforcement jurisdictions can complicate how administrators react to incidents off campus. And there is also a need seen for a 24-hour hotline for anyone to call with information or in case of an incident.

"One of the things that we have done at UCLA is that the campus police is now authorized to go off campus to respond to some of these incidents, so researchers that are perhaps in danger because they receive threats, they all have a direct number to UCLA dispatch," said Roberto Peccei, UCLA's vice chancellor for research. "So you can build in some help in certain areas. But it's hard. Mostly it's a matter of education."

The October 2007 statement from the AAU (of which Santa Cruz is not a member) states: "The research community and AAU are committed to ensuring that such research not only conforms with ethical, legal, and safety regulations but also maintains the highest standards of animal care and health. This obligation requires effective training and education of investigators and service personnel, as well as rigorous regulation and oversight of animal research.... Universities should continue to provide a forum for civil discourse and the open exchange of ideas about this or any other topic. But just as they protect the right of those who wish to express particular points of view through campus policies on free expression, universities must always ensure a safe environment for conducting their activities, including research involving the use of animals, free of intimidation or violence."

The Foundation for Biomedical Research also responded to the firebombings on Saturday. "These attacks, which are considered acts of domestic terrorism and attempted homicide, are the culmination of the mounting threats and home attacks made by animal rights extremists over the past two years," the organization said in a release.

"Home harassments have increased in recent years, as animal rights extremists have shifted their focus from attacking laboratories to attacking individual homes. Such attacks pose a significant threat to researchers' safety which is why Congress passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in 2006, expanding the protections for researchers and companies targeted by animal rights extremists. While there have been many attacks and threats against researchers since the passing of the law, no one has yet been prosecuted."

Indeed, there are limits to the tools available to law enforcement - the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Joint Terrorism Task Force are all involved - and those tasked with keeping campus environments safe. As Peccei noted, even the 24-hour security details placed on some UCLA researchers in the wake of recent attacks couldn't be kept up indefinitely for pragmatic and financial reasons. Some suggest that the most important role for universities is to keep the public's attention on the issue, facilitate communication between different institutions and organize a coordinated response.

"In general the university community has had a pretty uniform strong response to these kinds of attacks," Peccei said. "And that's very welcome by everybody."

Effect on Research

For many, the "$64,000 question," as Trull put it, will be whether the attacks and threats have a lasting effect on biomedical research itself, whether through declining numbers of researchers entering the field, shifts in research emphasis and experimental methods, or a general chilling effect. She said it's too early to tell whether that's the case, but that there will be "a lot of dynamic discussion about that going forward."

P. Michael Conn, associate director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center and the author of The Animal Research War, said he's been "rather impressed" so far with many scientists not backing off their research. "It's not happening in huge numbers, but you have to believe that young people" would be affected by the climate facing biomedical researchers, he said.

"A lot of people don't want to talk about this publicly because of this climate of fear.... This is no kind of an environment to pursue scientific inquiry if you're afraid to talk about it," Trull said. "So that needs to be addressed by all of those in biomedical research who feel strongly about this, have a stake in it, care about the future of discovery."

Some of the issues that will probably be discussed include measures taken by both individuals and institutions in an effort to protect themselves.

Peccei, for example, said that some scientists were restricting what information they make available on their faculty Web sites. "[A] lot of the people that feel under threat basically, essentially try to be invisible. And that's really counterproductive for them scientifically but it probably is a reasonable defense mechanism," he said.

UCLA has also declined certain Freedom of Information Act requests, he continued, if the information could place a researcher in danger. "So we have not complied with certain public records requests on that basis and have urged the NIH not to respond to certain FOIA requests because we feel that responding to some of these requests puts people in jeopardy."

Elsewhere, a court in Mississippi found late last month that records of pet food research done at a state university were not open to the public, ruling against People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which sought the data. And in Utah, universities can refuse to release the names of researchers working on animals. In Salt Lake City, ordinances also strictly limit "targeted residential demonstrations."

- Andy Guess