Call for probe into NIMR claims

Minister urged to investigate claims that MRC chief coerced staff over relocation plans

Dec 8, 2004
Pat Hagan(pat.hagan@btconnect.com)

Britain's Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has been asked to investigate claims that Medical Research Council (MRC) Chief Executive Colin Blakemore threatened to sack a senior scientist at the National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), unless he agreed to a plan to relocate the institute.

Patricia Hewitt, a member of Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet, has been urged to conduct an inquiry after the accusation surfaced at a meeting last week of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

Labour Member of Parliament (MP) Andrew Dismore, whose constituency of Hendon covers the current NIMR site at Mill Hill in north London, called for the inquiry because of the serious nature of the allegations.

Earlier this week, Dismore formally requested that Hewitt investigate whether Blakemore was guilty of "improper coercion" in an attempt to push through the MRC's plans for the NIMR. Hewitt has told the MP she will consider his request.

"This is a serious issue," Dismore told The Scientist. "It begs the question whether improper pressure was exerted and whether the result might have been different in the absence of that pressure."

The MP stressed he had no way of knowing if the claims against Blakemore were true or false. But he said an inquiry would determine whether the level of pressure put on staff at the NIMR to comply with the plans was appropriate or not.

"The question is, Did heavy-duty lobbying of a legitimate nature turn into improper coercion of an illegitimate nature? If someone was pressured over their job, it suggests it clearly went over the edge."

Robin Lovell-Badge, head of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at the institute, told MPs at a select committee hearing last week Blakemore telephoned him on at least two occasions attempting to "coerce" him into changing his mind.

"I had telephone calls late at night from Colin Blakemore threatening my job," Lovell-Badge told the inquiry. "There were two occasions in particular last spring. He made statements such as 'Robin, I don't know how you could disagree with me—I am your employer.'"

Blakemore strongly denied the claim and insisted there was no question of threatening Lovell-Badge over his job. He told The Scientist on Wednesday (December 8) that he had sent a dossier containing 300 pages of relevant correspondence to the select committee, which he says shows clearly that the late night phone conversation in question "was from Robin to me" and that there was no evidence of coercion.

"I absolutely, categorically deny having said anything that could be construed as a threat to dismiss him," Blakemore said.

Dismore's request marks a serious new development in the long-running saga over the future of the NIMR. MRC leaders want to relocate the NIMR to central London in order to team up with either King's College London or University College London. They believe this would greatly benefit the quality of research.

But senior NIMR scientists accuse the MRC Council of reneging on a pledge to include staying put at Mill Hill as an option, if relocating proved more expensive.

Dismore said if an inquiry supported Lovell-Badge's claims, the consequences could be severe. "It would put Blakemore in an extremely difficult position," he warned.