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Basic research: ‘as necessary as human curiosity’ says brain scientist

A leading brain scientist has made a passionate argument for basic research at a packed event, hosted by EARA, in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, this week (17 December 2018).

Prof. Dr. Gilles Laurent, the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research (MPI), said: “I do research to find out how the brain works. It’s part of human activity and curiosity and it’s a motivation to conduct science that I believe holds on its own.”

Reflecting on his own work with reptiles, rodents and cephalopods, Laurent compared current extent of human knowledge of the brain to an ant’s grasp of chemistry.

The Professor’s talk (pictured) was the third event in EARA’s Improving Openness in Animal Research in Germany series, supported by the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS) and the Society for Neuroscience (SfN).

Prof Dr. Gilles Laurent, of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, Frankfurt

Opening the event, EARA Executive Director Kirk Leech, explained how the tactics and actions of activists in Germany had drastically altered in the last 10 years.

“The landscape has changed significantly. There is no longer violent activism in Germany, now the challenge is more mainstream.”

Thanks to a more open environment to discuss animal research it has been possible to turn the tables on the activists by simply stating the facts about how scientists work: “The same images that activists use to criticise animal research are now shown on university websites, but with better explanations that puts the research into context.”

Kirk also previewed the results from EARA’s institutional openness study, which analyses websites in Germany to assess how open they are about animal research, noting the missed opportunities of many German institutions to share information about their animal research with the wider public.

Also speaking at the event were Dr. Andreas Lengeling, of the Max-Planck-Society (MPS), Volker Stollorz of the Science Media Center, Germany, and Dr. Regina Oehler, a science editor at the Hessischer Rundfunk since 1985.

Dr Lengeling explained how MPS had worked to improve on the transparency of its animal research and to speak in non-technical language to the public.

Returning to the point that Prof Laurent had made, he said there were two main things to remember about openness: “It’s important for scientists to not make exaggerated promises in their research and they should emphasise the importance of the long-term acquisition of knowledge in basic research using animals.”

Volker Stollorz told the audience there were real benefit from being open and transparent.

“You should communicate proactively, be open about what you do and allow visits to your labs,” he said.

But researchers needed to be honest with themselves and acknowledge that there are still ‘real ethical conflicts inside science’.

“We have to be honest and not pretend everything is easy about animal research. That includes talking about the potential harms and suffering of animals.”

See also the other Openness events in Germany in 2018 Berlin and Tübingen.


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