Into the lion's den

16th October 1998 at 01:00
Former teacher Ted Griffiths is now in charge of telling pupils about animal experimentation. Natasha Loder asked him where his heart lies

I've always been an animal lover. One of the things I considered very seriously as a kid was being a vet," says Dr Ted Griffiths, the new director of the Biomedical Research Education Trust. He has two rabbits at home, and will shortly be replacing his beloved dog which died last year.

"I like having them around," he says. Dr Griffiths is a former head of science at a Midlands school - an intentionally vague description. As the new director of BRET he needs to be careful about discussing where he comes from - nearly anything associated with the emotive issue of animal research, even education, has a risk attached to it.

BRET offers schools speakers on animal research. The aim is to supply a good, informative speaker on animal research who is involved in the field. Volunteers include research workers, doctors, animal technicians and even vets.

"Animal research is about medicines for animals as well," he explains. "The best ambassadors are animal welfare technicians. They say 'look this is essential, we don't like experimenting on animals but the consequences are no more progress, no more new drugs, no development for new diseases."

He's keen to point out he isn't there to promote the case of animal research: "I'm merely there to explain the viewpoint - the kids will take their own stance. Some of them may come to the point of view that ethically, morally you should not use animals for medical research, and that's a perfectly valid view. It's not one I agree with, but it's perfectly valid."

Dr Griffiths grew up in the Midlands, going to a science biased all-boys' school which he "enjoyed enormously". After a biochemistry degree at Sheffield, a temporary move to Liverpool saw him take his first teaching job - to earn some money. "I couldn't get a job on the buses, I was overqualified...if I'd had a degree in humanities I could have got a job. But the man said 'we know about you people with science degrees - we just train you up and you bugger off'." At that time the buses of Liverpool were full of staff with humanity degrees, he says.

Undeterred by over-qualification, Griffiths went on to do a PhD at Warwick, followed by a post-doctoral thesis. Although he's spent a lot of time in research, his only direct experience of animal research was during an undergraduate project at university. This was when he first faced the issue seriously.

But the research career track was not for Griffiths and wanting a job that would give him more time to pursue his interests in skiing and climbing, he moved back into teaching aged 29, joining his Midlands school as a science teacher.

Now he's ready for a new challenge. Of his new job he says: "It actually looked quite interesting. When you have been teaching for 20 years, you've probably done it all and seen it all. I needed a bit more stimulation."

Dr Griffiths is in his early fifties and married with two children. With a face that speaks of much time spent outdoors and a gentle manner, he gives the impression of great sincerity and honesty; the type of man who quietly draws respect - whether in the schoolroom or on the rockface.

He says most requests for BRET speakers come from people organising sixth-formers, but they also get a lot of requests for leaflets and information from children aged 10-13, and at GCSE level. "Biomedical research presents a difficult moral and ethical problem allied with some quite definitive scientific arguments. So if you are looking for a vehicle to stimulate kids in something that they're interested in, it's an excellent one."

For Dr Griffiths the future for BRET means building up the volunteer speaker list, and some new publications - perhaps a CD-rom and a better Website. He says there's a lot of work to be done to deal with the inaccurate impressions given by the anti-vivisection groups, and their out-of-date material. "I think there is a very large misconception about what animal testing involves nowadays. The numbers are huge but it's not open vivisection all the time. Historically it has not been well-controlled, but there's a big change now, we are now the most regulated animal welfare country in the world.

"There are two issues: is it right to use animals in research? Many people say absolutely not and there is no debate to be hadI you've taken opposing views and you've just got to get to the ballot box.

"Once you have decided yes, then you must have responsible, well-regulated, research on animals in order to advance medicines both in humans and animals. This is where the animal welfare issue comes in. In the UK we have a very strict animal welfare regime, it's not easy to actually carry out research using animals. Many people get frustrated by the difficulties of it. But it should be highly-regulated and it should be closely monitoredIif it wasn't I would not do the job. Simple as that."

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