"Using Animals for Research Is More Justifiable Than Eating Them for Pleasure": Sholto Byrnes Talks to Colin Blakemore; as Britain's Bravest Scientist Takes Up a New Role at the Food Standards Agency, He Speaks out on the NHS, Obesity and Fur-And Admits to Principled "Pangs of Guilt"
Byrnes, Sholto, New Statesman (1996)
"Ooooooof!" Colin Blakemore is stumped--a rare occurrence indeed. Professor of neuroscience at Oxford and Warwick universities, former chief executive of the Medical Research Council (MRC), the youngest ever Reith lecturer (in 1976) and winner of the Royal Society's Michael Faraday award for public communication of science, Blakemore is not a man known for shying away from controversy or being short for words. He thinks that alcohol and tobacco should be classed as more dangerous than LSD or Ecstasy, and that all drugs should be legalised. Never mind animals (more of which later), he believes human beings should be used as guinea pigs for medical research. He even defended the DNA pioneer James Watson after the Nobel laureate caused a stink with his crass remarks about race and intelligence last year.
But on the question of who in the past ten years has been his favourite health secretary, he cannot form an opinion; or, at least, not one he is prepared to communicate in public. "I'll pass," he says eventually, adding in a mutter combining a dash of sympathy with the suggestion that none of them has been much cop, "It's a very difficult job."
Blakemore is a busy man. He bustles into his office at the Science Museum in South Kensington, rangy limbs sticking like beanpoles out of his trousers (a keen marathon runner, he has the physique to show for it), lopsided smile on a face that has borne too many cares. He's late after being stuck in traffic, but "he's always late", confides his secretary, and no wonder.
On top of jobs at Oxford and Warwick, Blakemore has just started as chair of the new general advisory committee on science at the Food Standards Agency (FSA). The previous day, the Health Protection Agency asked him to chair another committee on electromagnetic fields--"radiation, mobile phones, power lines, all that controversial stuff". He is to give a lecture that evening for which he has to prepare, as well as write two articles on cannabis the same afternoon. And he is just about to jet off to Singapore, where he leads the government's Neuroscience Research Partnership.
"My life is overfull!" he exclaims. "I probably said yes to too many things when I left the MRC." But whatever he does for the rest of his life, Colin Blakemore will always be known as the scientist who stood up for vivisection. After his departure from the MRC last year, he had the unenviable distinction of being the only person to have left that position without a knighthood. In 2003 it came out that he had been turned down for a "K" because of his past work on animals, which had led to breakthroughs in preventing childhood blindness. He threatened to resign unless the government made clear it supported scientists engaged in animal research, which the then science minister, David Sainsbury, duly did.
There was still no knighthood, though. The finger of suspicion landed on Sir Richard Mottram, the Whitehall mandarin infamous for his indelicate response to the resignation of Stephen Byers ("I'm f*****. You're f*****. The whole department's f*****"). Mottram chaired the committee thought to have blocked Blakemore's nomination, which provided convenient cover for ministers. "In a letter to a colleague, Tony Blair was firm that the government didn't control the process," says Blakemore, with a dry chuckle. Of course not.
But this was no one-off. Blakemore has been passed over at least five times now, the last occasion being the 2008 New Year Honours list. "People tell me that every time it's been on the grounds of my involvement in animal research and the controversy [an award would cause] in public." When the Animal Liberation Front threatened a series of attacks on Oxford later this year, to coincide with the opening of a new facility housing all the university's animal testing labs, Blakemore's name inevitably came up. "The implication was that I would be the target," he says. …