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Last Updated: Monday, 22 December, 2003, 14:37 GMT
Scientist issues honours threat
Professor Colin Blakemore
Professor Blakemore is concerned about the impact on science
A senior UK Government scientist has said he may resign after reports he was not put forward for an honour because of his support for animal experiments.

Colin Blakemore, head of the Medical Research Council (MRC), made the threat after details of deliberations of civil servants on the Honours Committee were leaked to papers.

But the Science Minister Lord Sainsbury says his exclusion was not a reflection of official policy.

MPs on the Public Administration Committee are to begin an inquiry into the honours system in the New Year.

Labour Chairman Tony Wright said: "We need to have an honours system which people believe is credible."

Animal research

Professor Blakemore said he understood his name was blocked because of his work with animal experimentation, but pointed out other scientists who worked on animals "but don't speak about their work" had been given honours recently.

The government both admires and fully supports all those on the front line who stood up to animal rights extremists
Lord Sainsbury
Science minister
"I take it to mean because I have been willing to engage publicly on that very sensitive but very important issue [my name was blocked]," Professor Blakemore told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

The MRC's mission statement includes a specific commitment to engage 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 do so will actually reduce their standing and their reputation in the eyes of the government?" said Professor Blakemore.

Government support

Science Minister Lord Sainsbury said there was no political influence in the decisions.

There were 2.73 million regulated procedures in 2002
This was an increase of about 110,000, or 4.2%, on 2001
80% of all the experiments are for research and drug development; safety testing accounts for most of rest
He told Today: "I want to say on behalf of this government that this does not represent in any way government policy - this is essentially a civil service process.

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

"It is also quite clear that the government both admires and fully supports all those on the front line who stood up to animal rights extremists."

Lord Sainsbury told BBC News Online that Professor Blakemore's appointment as chief executive of the MRC "also reflects the great respect for his scientific work held both by the Government and the research community".

Professor Blakemore, who had been assured privately of Lord Sainsbury's support, said he was "delighted that [Lord Sainsbury] is courageous enough to say that in public".

Both men agreed dialogue between the public and scientists was essential on animal experimentation and other controversial issues in science.

Animal rights

Andrew Tyler, director of animal rights group Animal Aid, claimed that Professor Blakemore's comments wrongly gave the impression animal experimentation and medical research went hand-in-hand: "I hope the public will see through Colin Blakemore's extraordinary tantrum," said Mr Tyler.

"Of course, we all want the best medical research - but animal experiments are a hindrance to that endeavour - not a help."

Wendy Higgins, of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (Buav), said: "We are delighted if Colin Blakemore being denied this honour is the start of the government listening to public views on animal experimentation.

"But it is in stark contrast to the way that government will go out of its way to protect those groups involved in animal experimentation."

Scientists' concern

Prime Minister Tony Blair has publicly said that Britain risks being overtaken by other countries if it lets unjustified protests, including on the issue of vivisection, stifle vital scientific advances.

The government has also enacted legislation to give wider protection to workers employed at animal experimentation labs that have been targeted by animal rights campaigners.

Many of these people are already overpaid for what they do
Stuart, Preston

News of Professor Blakemore's move came amid the leaking of a secret list of 300 top figures who have refused knighthoods, CBEs and other awards.

Singer David Bowie and comedy duo Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders were among those who have refused honours, according to the leaked Whitehall files.

The BBC's George Eykyn
"A committee of MPs will investigate the secrecy surrounding the honours system"

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