I Believe the Government Is in Danger of Creating a System That Rewards the Cowards and Shuns the Courageous; THE EMINENT SCIENTIST SNUBBED BY HONOURS COMMITTEE FOR FEAR OF UPSETTING ANIMAL RIGHTS ACTIVISTS SPEAKS OUT

The Evening Standard (London, England), December 17, 2003 | Go to article overview

I Believe the Government Is in Danger of Creating a System That Rewards the Cowards and Shuns the Courageous; THE EMINENT SCIENTIST SNUBBED BY HONOURS COMMITTEE FOR FEAR OF UPSETTING ANIMAL RIGHTS ACTIVISTS SPEAKS OUT


Byline: DAVID COHEN

WHEN I meet him, the distinguished scientist Professor Colin Blakemore is in some pain, a dagger planted in his back. He hunches over his desk in his office located on the grand sweep of Park Crescent in central London and grimaces, using words like "shocking" to express the hurt he feels.

Though the firmly-planted dagger is, of course, metaphorical, his eyes tell you that the pain is real.

For this week, the recently appointed chief executive of the Medical Research Council (MRC) - who for 15 years has suffered parcel bombs, death threats and everything that a small but determined group of animal rights terrorists could throw at him - learned once and for all who his friends are.

And it came as a severe shock.

A top-secret Cabinet Office document leaked over the weekend revealed that the very politicians and civil servants who publicly claim to support Blakemore's defence of vivisection, bounced him off the New Year's honours list because privately they fear a backlash from the animal rights lobby.

The minutes of the main honours committee - which drew up the merits and demerits of 38 people short-listed for knighthoods - records the condescending verdict they came to on Blakemore: "The committee were unlikely to recommend him for his scientific work, particularly in view of his controversial work on vivisection.

"He had now moved to the MRC, however, and it was possible that his reputation would be improved. He should be looked at again when he had had a little longer at the MRC."

"The word 'hypocrisy' comes to mind," fumes Blakemore. "Honours don't mean that much to me, and certainly no one should ever hold an expectation of receiving one, but the message that this has sent out is deeply shocking.

"On the one hand, the Government specifically encourages scientists to engage the public on controversial issues. But in private, you are regarded as a pariah, marked down as unsavoury and your reputation is diminished.

"To suffer 15 years of terrorism and threat, as I have, because you are one of the few prepared to stand up for what government promotes, and then learn that this Government shuns you for doing so is deeply demoralising."

Blakemore, 59, is no stranger to speaking his mind. Over the course of the interview, he will offer his trenchant views on almost every controversial subject - from MMR ("the overwhelming body of evidence says the vaccine is safe") to Roy Meadow ("any scientist who destroys his database is suspicious and is either disorganised or malicious") to reproductive cloning ("I have no ethical objection and predict that it will become the treatment of last resort for infertile couples").

He leans forward as he talks, elegantly straining at the leash in his tailored striped shirt to understand and be understood, hallmarks of a born communicator.

The difference is that these days Blakemore wears two hats: a stiff corporate one that says "most powerful scientist in the land and head of a [pounds sterling]500million operation with 3,500 employees" ; the other is a well-worn, personal one still labelled "hunted man".

For most of our interview, it is the second hat that he dons. "These views I have," he will repeat, "are my own, not those of the MRC."

Blakemore's troubles began in the late Eighties when his pioneering work on kittens - which involved stitching up their eyes to find the cure for "lazy eye", the most common cause of child blindness - made him Enemy Number One for a group of animal rights activists.

Never mind that the work was eventually successful, pinpointing the cause and cure of lazy eye, and benefiting thousands of children. That cut no ice with the radical activist community, whom Blakemore had tried to engage in a dialogue-They didn't want to listen to his cost-benefit analysis as to why the pain of a finite number of kittens was worth it if it saved the sight of an infinite number of children. …

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