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Right to Science Exemplars: Scientific Freedom

The following exemplar demonstrates the steps that governments can take to respect the "the freedom indispensable for scientific research" as required by Article 15.

Scientific freedom

Vital to the progress of any national research enterprise, scientific freedom may be both defended and threatened by governments. In the United Kingdom, in the face of increasingly extremist campaigns by animal rights activists against scientists who conduct research on animals, the government has taken decisive action to protect its researchers and defend their scientific freedom.

The battle between animal liberationists and scientists who use animal subjects has been waged for 30 years in the UK, but in the past decade extremists efforts have become more acute and more focused on individuals and their families. One researcher faced sustained threats and vandalism for 15 years, his children forced to travel with a police escort. The University of Oxford halted construction on a biomedical research center for 18 months when the main contractor withdrew from the project in 2004 following property damage and threats to employees and shareholders. Staff and affiliates of Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), an organization that conducts animal research, were subject to a six year campaign that included false accusations of pedophilia, threatening letters, and fake explosives, and in 2001 the managing director of HLS was beaten by masked men with clubs.

As a result of such threats and harassment, some scientists have been deterred from pursuing or continuing animal research. The government response has been decisive. A 2004 law targeted specifically at animal rights activists prohibited protests outside an individuals home, and the new policy established a special unit of police and prosecutors to target violent activists. The Serious and Organised Crime Act of 2005 (SOCA) prohibited interference with contractual obligations and intimidation of people connected to animal research organizations. In a symbolic move, Prime Minister Tony Blair signed the online Peoples Petition in support of animal testing.

The enforcement of this legislation has been effective. Oxford construction resumed under the protection of three special teams of officers. Using SOCA and the Proceeds of Crime Act, police have seized the financial assets of groups engaging in violence. In January 2009, seven animal rights activists connected to the campaign against HLS were convicted and received sentences of up to 11 years. The following month, the leader of the network of activists responsible for the Oxford attacks was sentenced to 10 years. Though activist groups swore they would not be deterred, statistics show the efficacy of the governments policy push: the number of attacks on the homes of company employees fell to ten in 2008, from a peak of 259 in 2003. Oxfords research center opened in November 2008 after a five year construction process, beginning a research agenda that includes investigations into cancer, diabetes, and Parkinsons disease.

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