Scientist threatens to quit over lack of backing for vivisection

A SENIOR government scientist threatened to quit yesterday if ministers failed to back experiments on animals.

Colin Blakemore, the head of the Medical Research Council, (MRC) spoke out after reports that he was not put forward for an honour because of his support for the work.

Prof Blakemore’s public defence of animal experimentation made him too controversial to be included, according to leaked papers.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The scientist said the leak threatened to make his position at the MRC untenable.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: "It has nothing to do with whether I particularly deserve an honour - that is neither here nor there.

"The mission statement of the medical research organisation which I now run includes a specific commitment to engaging with the public on issues in medical research.

"How can I now, in the present circumstances, go to MRC scientists and ask them to take the risk of being willing to talk about animal experimentation with this indication that doing so will reduce their standing and their reputation in the eyes of the government?"

Prof Blakemore called on the government to "reaffirm its commitment to the essential use of animals in research and also to the importance of scientists being willing to speak out and engage with the public on controversial issues".

"What this unfortunate leak has revealed is that this honours system is not the rigorous system of assessment of merit that we thought it was," he said.

"There should be mechanisms for recognising contribution to society that should be unbiased. But what we see is that this seems to be subject to personal whim, to political expediency, perhaps to blackballing by individuals."

Prof Blakemore said his exclusion showed officials just did not want to become embroiled in such controversy.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"Apparently I was marked down as too controversial because of my, as it said, work on vivisection, which I take to be not my actual experimental work," he said.

"Other scientists who work on animals but don’t speak about their work have been given honours recently."

The science minister Lord Sainsbury said the leak sent out the "wrong message".

"I want at this point to say on behalf of this government this does not in any way represent government policy," he told Today.

"This is essentially a civil service process and it does not represent government policy, which is quite clear on this.

"It is well-known I think that government believes it is necessary to do animal experiments within the tough regulatory regime we have."

Prof Blakemore’s MP, the Liberal Democrat Evan Harris, called for an inquiry into why the honours committee thought recognising the scientist’s work would be unacceptable to ministers.

Mr Harris, a Commons science and technology committee member, hit out at the government’s lack of support for scientists who publicly defend the use of animals in medical research.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Mr harris said: "Following the revelation that senior Whitehall mandarins blocked an honour for Prof Blakemore, it is not enough for the government to wheel out Lord Sainsbury, the science minister, to blame the civil service. Such Whitehall committees do not work in isolation from their political masters.

"It is the fault of ministers that these civil servants were so clearly of the view that due recognition for Prof Blakemore and his colleagues was politically unacceptable, and it is now down to ministers to correct that view publicly."

Michael Ancram, the Tory deputy leader, defended the honours system, saying: "Honours should be there to reward merit and as long as that is what honours are doing then they are a very valuable part of society.

"Not only does it recognise the work that people have done in terms of public service, but also it encourages others to do the same."

He told BBC Radio 4’s The World At One: "To suggest that the government had no role in this, which is what Lord Sainsbury was suggesting this morning, I think is rubbish.

"Governments have always had a role in it but the process must be to produce names at the end of the day who are there because what they have done in terms of public service, or in terms of the achievement in their own right, merits that type of recognition."

Related topics: