Prime Minister backs Blakemore

MRC chief withdraws threat to resign from his post

By | January 13, 2004

British Prime Minister Tony Blair today (January 13) issued a strong letter in support of animal research, Colin Blakemore, chief executive officer of the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) said. The letter is exactly what Blakemore called for when he threatened to resign from his post at the MRC in December if the government did not reaffirm its commitment to the use of animals in research. Blakemore had been rejected for an honor because he participated in “vivisection.”

However, as reported in the Financial Times yesterday, Blakemore had already withdrawn his threat on the basis of broader government and outside support. “I will now be pressing ahead with the various proposals encouraging MRC scientists to engage more in public dialogue,” he told The Scientist.

“I withdrew my resignation on the basis of what I'd heard particularly from Lord Sainsbury and [Chief Scientific Advisor] David King, but also on the basis of the level of support I received from my colleagues in the scientific community, and their encouragement for me to soldier on at the MRC,” he said.

Writing to Tom Blundell, the new president of the UK Biosciences Federation, the prime minister “was very firm in support—as one would have expected,” Blakemore said. The letter, read to The Scientist by Blakemore, reads:

“The government's view of animal research was stated very succinctly by [Minister of Science] David Sainsbury in the House of Lords in October 2003, when he said, 'The Government also note, and endorse, the Select Committee's finding that there is a continuing need for animal experiments in applied research and in research aimed at extending knowledge. We agree that fundamental and applied scientific research has enormous potential for progress.

'Note that, in the field of health care, research using animals has contributed to almost every medical advance in the past century. I also believe that public opinion is very sensible and entirely right on this issue. Most people in this country accept the idea of animal experimentation, but are very clear that it should not take place in any case where it is unnecessary or causes unnecessary suffering.

'I also believe that the whole issue of information and openness is important, because if people are asked what type of regulation they would like to see… they describe what they see as an ideal system, and that is the system that we already have in this country.'

“I of course fully concur with David's comments [writes Blair]. I hope this is helpful.”

The signature is that of the prime minister, who adds in his own handwriting, “As you know, I am fully supportive of the scientific community on these issues. But I can't help what's in the press!” The word “fully” is underlined.

Blakemore also gave evidence today before the Public Administration Select Committee of the House of Commons, which is now investigating the honors system. “The discussion was a bit vague. They spent a lot of time talking about the incident and my reaction to it… and discussed what it revealed about the fairness and balance in the review process,” Blakemore said.

“If—as it seems to be—it was the opinion of one individual, probably not a civil servant, but a member of the Science and Technology Committee, it could just have been a throwaway remark, that there is this controversy about animal research, to reduce the numbers of candidates for what are very few honors,” he said.

“I'm trying to be charitable,” he said. “My point has always been not about the honors system or the judgement on me, but the government position on animals.”

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