September 15, 2008 (Vol. 28, No. 16)

Vandalism and Violent Acts That Sabotage Experiments Are a Threat to All Researchers

Earlier this year, firebombs that exploded minutes apart destroyed a car parked outside the campus home of a researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and burned the front door of another’s house. He and his family escaped the smoke-filled house using a ladder lowered from a second-story window. A third researcher received a threatening telephone message around the same time.

These examples of domestic terrorism are part of a vicious pattern of terrorist acts against university researchers who are involved with experiments that use animals. They follow other similar incidents of threats and vandalism earlier this year at two other University of California campuses.

There has been virtually unanimous condemnation of these terrorist acts. UCLA Chancellor Gene Block staunchly defended the academic freedom of university faculty, branding the flooding of a researcher’s home by vandals a “deplorable and illegal act of extreme vandalism.” Even prominent advocates for animal rights condemned the recent bombings; a statement from the national Humane Society said the bombing tactics are “reviled by mainstream advocates of animal protection.”

Similar responses have come from British universities and other institutions after animal-rights activists terrorized researchers there in recent years.

Such reactions would seem to be a foregone conclusion for anyone with a functioning moral compass, but recent events in Germany belie that notion.

Widespread and repeated vandalism in several European countries—focused there on field trials of gene-spliced, or genetically modified (GM) plants—has been exceedingly damaging to agricultural research, including critical risk-assessment studies. The latest incident occurred in June when experimental wheat plants were destroyed at a research station near Zurich. The field trial was intended to assess the interactions of gene-spliced wheat with other plants, soil microorganisms, and insects.

Vandalism toward GM Plants

In France and Germany, small-scale field trials of gene-spliced plants conducted by researchers at universities and research institutes have been regularly vandalized by activists, even though most of these investigations were studying the environmental safety of growing gene-spliced plants in normal agricultural environments. One German postdoctoral fellow was attacked with stones while trying to protect his virus-resistant sugar beets from vandals.

A few scientists have continued to pursue their research in the face of such violence—which, unlike similar attacks in the U.K. and U.S., has been virtually ignored by the criminal-justice system. The coup de grâce, however, may now have been administered by the recent decision of two German universities to prohibit field trials of gene-spliced crops.

In April, the rector and external advisory board of Nürtingen-Geislingen University in Baden-Württemberg “urgently recommended” that a faculty member terminate his field trials that had begun in 1996—on insect-resistant and fungus-resistant gene-spliced corn. “We have always been very critical of this kind of research,” said economist Werner Ziegler, the university’s rector. “Lately, things got out of control. There were e-mail attacks, vandalism, intimidation, and personal threats.”

Also in April, the Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Hesse, announced that it would stop its planned initiation of two small field trials of insect-resistant gene-spliced corn after protests by activists and local politicians. Both trials had been approved by the national consumer protection and food safety agency and were to be conducted on behalf of the national authority for agriculture variety and seed affairs.

“I am not happy at all with this decision,” said Stefan Hormuth, the university’s president. “Unfortunately, we were no longer able to deal with the massive opposition from politicians and the general public. The university has a reputation in the region that we cannot risk losing.”

To Ban or Not to Ban Research?

Let me get this straight. German universities think they maintain their reputations by curtailing the academic freedom of their faculty and students in the face of demands and threats from fascist thugs?

Germany is the only country in which the universities—which are normally refuge dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and to the freedom to perform legitimate research—have capitulated to the hoodlums. One might expect such deplorable, dastardly behavior in backward authoritarian countries, but in a major Western democracy it is inexcusable.

Along with France, Germany has experienced frequent violent vandalism of field trial sites, but the appropriate response is not to ban the research. Would a British, Canadian, or American university even consider banning research using animals in response to the threats, intimidation, and violence by animal rights activists?

This capitulation to the vilest sort of behavior is grotesque and has dire implications: Violent, antitechnology, antisocial sharks of all kinds will now smell blood in the water.

Herr Hormuth, the president of Justus Liebig University, offers a dubious defense of his actions, “if we look at history then we should have also learned that we have to act responsibly with the results and possibilities of scientific research and are accountable to society.” A quite extraordinary statement.

Given the existing achievements of gene-spliced plants—huge economic benefits to farmers, less use of chemical pesticides, and more environment-friendly farming practices—he appears to have a peculiar view of what constitutes acting responsibly with the results and possibilities of scientific research and accountability to society. Could anyone argue seriously that delaying or abandoning a demonstrably safe technology that is environment-friendly and enhances food (and potentially biofuel) production is beneficial to society?

Aggressive Societal Responses

Antisocial behavior demands aggressive, unequivocal societal responses, not cowardly capitulation. Vigorous prosecution and punishment of criminal actions should be accompanied by university administrators’ resolve to resist intimidation.

There are important lessons here: (1) You should not conciliate thugs by capitulating to them, and (2) When universities permit intimidation to compromise academic freedom and the safety of their faculty and students, they become part of the problem.

Henry I. Miller, M.D., a physician and molecular
biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Email: [email protected].

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