A leading British scientist who led the Medical Research Council for five years before stepping down earlier this year has been refused a knighthood in the New Year Honours List because of his outspoken support for animal research.
Professor Colin Blakemore, a distinguished neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, has been nominated several times for a knighthood but has been blocked each time by senior officials anxious about his public support for medical experiments involving laboratory animals.
A memo leaked from the secretive honours committee five years ago said that Professor Blakemore had been rejected for an honour in 2003 because of his "controversial work on vivisection". It added: "He had now moved to the Medical Research Council (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."
However, despite successfully leading the MRC for five years as its chief executive, Professor Blakemore has again been passed over for a knighthood. It is believed to be the first time in the research council's long history that a former head has left office without an honour.
Professor Blakemore refused to comment yesterday but it is understood from sources close to him that he has not received the customary official letter inviting him to accept an honour in the new year list to be published next week.
Tam Dalyell, the former Labour MP and veteran parliamentarian, deplored the decision, saying that the snub could only be attributed to cowardice on the part of government ministers worried about a possible public backlash: "The kind of pioneering work that Colin Blakemore has done so well will, I bet, have benefited the health of many of his critics or their families," Mr Dalyell said yesterday.
Other scientists also criticised the decision on the grounds that Professor Blakemore has done more than anyone to explain to the public why many medical breakthroughs would have been impossible without animal experiments.
"Irrespective of his role as head of the MRC, I'd have expected him to be honoured for his really critical role in promoting the need for animal research in bio-medicine," said Professor Chris Higgins, vice-chancellor of Durham University.
"I'm not sure how people can be criticised simply because they are outspoken after all Nelson Mandela was outspoken against apartheid. Colin Blakemore stuck his head above the parapet and deserves to be honoured for it," Professor Higgins said.
Lord Rees of Ludlow, the president of the Royal Society, said that Professor Blakemore deserved a knighthood. "He's certainly more deserving of a knighthood than many who've had the honour already," he said.
The biq question, page 45
* Born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1944, Colin Blakemore wins a state scholarship to Cambridge and a first-class science degree. Waynflete Professor of Physiology at Oxford University at the age of 35.
* His research into vision leads him to experiments on kittens and makes him a hate figure of the animal rights movement.
* Blakemore and his family are targeted in a violent campaign by animal extremists.
* In 2007, he steps down as head of the MRC after five years' service. Overlooked again for New Year honour.