When a 'like' is not enough

23 September 2016

When you do research on neurodegenerative diseases as common and devastating as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, it’s easy to pitch your work to a wider audience. Generally speaking, the people I meet are interested in what I do, or at least happy that I am interested in it on their behalf. Most of them are glad to know their tax money is invested in research that can help us understand and (hopefully) eventually cure the illnesses that they or their loved ones may suffer from. Consequently, most of the ‘science communication’ I have been involved in, both inside and outside of VIB, has been smooth sailing.

All of that changed when I wrote a piece on a far more controversial topic – animal experimentation – for a magazine in Flanders. Suddenly, insulting tweets appeared, people posted comments containing inaccurate facts, and in a response piece, my words were taken out of context and misrepresented for the whole world to see.

I must admit that it shook me up a little – not that I was surprised. I knew this debate was emotionally loaded and that negative responses were inevitable. However, I had underestimated how much time and energy it would drain from me, and how much these public reactions and my inability to respond to them would get to me.

Why me?
In the turmoil that followed, I second-guessed my decision to write an opinion letter. Why had
I thought it was a good idea in the first place? After all, it did not really involve me anymore. I no
longer work at VIB-KU Leuven, or at any other Belgian or European research institute for that
matter. The pending revision of EU legislation on animal experimentation would not have any direct impact on me or my work. Besides, I am not the most suitable person by far to speak up about this topic. The last time I performed experiments involving animals was seven years ago. Surely, other more experienced and senior people were in a much better position to address these issues, especially to the press.

Why not me?
In the heat of the moment, these excuses didn’t occur to me. I had responded to the press the way I did because what I read had hurt me as a scientist. I may not be an expert, but my reputation had
been dragged through the mud just as much as that of any other researcher. I may not be directly
involved in animal experiments on a regular basis, but I work with cell lines derived from animals, requiring animal serum. I use antibodies generated by my colleagues through the use of animals. As a result, the purpose and methods of my work were also criticized. My ethical standards were questioned. I care enough about my research to spend evenings or weekends in the lab, to lose sleep over it, to get frustrated, to discuss it over and over again, even with friends outside of work. Looking at it that way, it was not at all strange to take a defensive position when the work I so firmly believe in was publicly put into question.

Discussing progress and hope is easy. I figured that if I truly cared about scientific outreach, I should not shy away when the conversation gets tough. Staying silent about the difficult subjects does not help either — it just feeds fear and ignorance. Having decided that responding publicly was the right thing to do, I wondered why so few scientists did.

An uncomfortable silence
Why did the same articles stir so little reaction in my colleagues? Bart De Strooper reacted, as he
has in the past. Why was no one else taking our side in this public argument? Did they also ask
themselves the same question I did: “Why me?”

To be fair, what I wrote was shared and liked on social media, within my own and hopefully other people’s scientific and academic networks. But out there in the public sphere, nobody refuted inaccurate claims in the comments section. Were there really no other scientists following the
debate? Why was no one else from any of the 22 Belgian institutes that had claimed days earlier to communicate better about animal experimentation speaking up?

It is not enough that we pat each other on the back and return to our lab work. We need to have this conversation where it matters: with the public, the animal right activists and the legislators. The least we can do is make our voices heard. I know my piece will not make “extremists” change their minds, but it provides another view, hopefully balancing the perspective of the silent majority. The same is true for other controversial topics such as genetic modification, a discussion currently flaring up in full force with the surge of CRISPR/Cas.

The online conversations I had confirmed again that the scientific enterprise is a big black box to outsiders. How can they know why animals are still needed, or what is allowed and what isn’t? We cannot expect legislators to make evidencebased policies if we do not communicate how science works or, at the very least, call out people who misrepresent it.

Now, I know what you’ll say: “We don’t have time for that!” And you are perfectly right, you don’t have time. But you can make time. We are so busy chasing high-impact publications that we neglect the issues that have very real impacts occurring right before our eyes. We know our science matters, and it is up to us to tell people how and why. No one else can do it for us.


After completing her PhD at VIB, Liesbeth set out to explore new horizons and ended up at UNSW
Australia. She writes about her scientific adventures on the other side of the world.
Follow Liesbeth on Twitter @Liesbeth_Aerts

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Liesbeth Aerts