Earle Holland, Ohio State University's assistant vice president for Research Communications, says activists are increasingly targeting students pursuing degrees in fields known for relying on laboratory animals to conduct research.
"It is much bigger than ever before," Holland says. "The FBI has designated some animal rights groups and even some environmental activists as domestic terrorists. Given the rise in violence and property destruction over the past decade or so, it is much more serious than it was in the past."
Holland says that Ohio State is relatively fortunate, dealing with only a "handful" of serious threats of violence to university researchers in recent years. The national trend, on the other hand, concerns the university and the research community at large.
Major research institutions such as Ohio State rely on laboratory research animals for two key reasons: first, because the animals provide the best possible vehicle for conducting research in many fields of study.
"There are no alternatives to the use of animals, or we would adopt them quickly," Holland noted. "The alternatives or substitutes activists propose don't provide the same level of research certainty as animals raised for that purpose."
The second critical reason researchers utilize animals in their work is fairly straightforward: they're required to do so.
"You can't do biomedical research, or research in agriculture, or research in any number of areas without laboratory animals," Holland says. "That's a prerequisite of the National Institutes of Health or United States Department of Agriculture: If you're going to have advancements in these areas, they have to be tested on animals."
Holland, who is the university's "point man" for any area of research risk, remains concerned over one activist group's efforts to target students on research campuses.
Negotiation Is Over, a Florida-based activist group, claims discussion between citizens interested in animal welfare and professionals within research community is futile, and should stop in favor of what is known as "direct action."
"They are targeting incoming students in the sciences and related fields who, as a part of their course of study, will be dealing with animals," Holland explains. "These are young people, easily threatened, easily put in harm's way, and by threatening them, they could possibly change the students' mindset about their careers and perhaps move away from these fields."
The end result is radical activists picking on people who are not trained or otherwise experienced, and instead on people more vulnerable than professional researchers at institutions such as Ohio State, he says.
The research community has traditionally dealt poorly with these types of radical actions in the past, typically adopting a philosophical stance that included generally ignoring groups opposed to lab animal research.
"Quite frankly the scientific community has done a lousy job in the past of standing up and justifying its use of animals," he says. "They've listened to what our mothers used to say about bullies and turned around and walked away. As we learned as kids, if you ignore bullies, they just keep pummeling you, so to speak."
Organizations including Ohio State are increasingly turning away from that strategy, which Holland says had little chance of ever working. Rather, research institutions are attempting to handle activists more proactively, justifying the use of animals in research, and personally responding to concerned citizens.
"Ohio State has always taken the posture, even before the rest of the country, of aggressively countering these types of attacks, defending the fact that as a research university we follow all the federal, state and local guidelines to ensure the humane treatment of these animals, but that we are going to do research involving animals."