Dishonouring scientists

Professor Colin Blakemore explains why his knighthood snub shows the government's spinelessness on animal research.

Helene Guldberg

Topics Science & Tech

The Sunday Times published the details of a leaked Cabinet Office document on 21 December 2003, which suggested that Professor Colin Blakemore was not recommended for a knighthood because of his ‘controversial work on vivisection’. Blakemore says he is now reconsidering his position as chief executive of the Medical Research Council (MRC).

This is not a case of sour grapes. Blakemore tells me ‘it has nothing to do with whether I deserve an honour or not – that is not the issue’. His concern is that these revelations may discourage scientists from speaking out on controversial matters. ‘My research is not particularly controversial’, he points out; ‘neither in terms of the animals I have experimented on – mice – nor in terms of the techniques I have adopted. But the point is that I have spoken out on these issues.’ Indeed, Blakemore is one of the few British scientists who has consistently spoken out in favour of animal research.

He is relieved that UK science minister Lord Sainsbury has come out in support of animal experimentation – but he says the government will need to do more to convince him to remain at the MRC. Sir David King, the government’s chief scientific adviser, declared his support for the work of scientists carrying out animal experimentation on BBC Radio 4’s Today this morning, but Blakemore would like to see prime minister Tony Blair enter the fray.

The Council of the Biosciences Federation, led by Sir Tom Blundell, has also put pressure on Blair, in a letter signed by eminent scientists, to take a more robust stance on animal experimentation (1). The letter expresses ‘grave concern about the damaging effect of the leaked minutes’, which send ‘entirely the wrong message. They imply that if scientists communicate with the public about their research, they will be denied recognition if their work is felt to be “controversial”.’

As Blakemore points out, the MRC says on its website that it is ‘eager to share its work with the public in order to increase awareness of the way in which medical research affects each of us, and to promote dialogue and debate on major issues’ (2). Blakemore sees his role at the MRC as ‘helping encourage scientists to put their heads above the parapet and speak out on scientific issues, no matter how controversial’.

‘Now I feel compromised’, he says. ‘How am I expected to respond? How can I convince scientists to engage in sensitive debates when they see a scientist marked down in the eyes of the government for doing so? This is very disappointing.’

Disappointing, yes, but perhaps not surprising. Indeed, Blakemore has spoken out against the government’s stalling over animal research many times before. ‘The government has been equivocal on this issue since it was elected in 1997’, he says. He believes this is due to the substantial donations that the Labour Party has received from animal liberation groups.

Such funding may influence the government’s response to anti-vivisectionists. But a more convincing explanation for its prevarication over animal experimentation is the general spinelessness it displays when confronted by controversial issues. Blakemore is frustrated that the government does not respond until its back is against the wall – as in the case of the Huntingdon Life Sciences. ‘When there was a serious discussion about pharmaceutical companies quitting this country, the government needed to respond’, he says.

We need the government consistently to back scientists such as Blakemore, who are prepared to argue for animal experimentation. Previous generations grew up in an age without antibiotics, organ transplantation, blood transfusion, or effective drugs for high blood pressure, asthma, epilepsy, cancer and much more. These medical advances would not have been won, or would have been introduced at great human cost, had it not been for animal experimentation.

It’s time for the government to stop wishing away problems, such as the anti-vivisectionists arguments – and start confronting them head on.

Read on:

spiked-issue: On animals

(1) The New Biosciences Federation website

(2) See the public interest section of the MRC website

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Topics Science & Tech


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