Leaders rewarded, leaders shunned, in New Year honours

December 29, 2007

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Retailer Stuart Rose and Scientist Ian Wilmut are rewarded with knighthoods in the Queen’s New Year honours list. They seem to have identikit records of significant leadership contributions to their fields. But another influential and distinguished scientist Colin Blakemore, is deemed too controversial a figure to be recognised publically for his services to the public

Stuart Rose was arguably a knight-in-waiting. It is a tradition within the British establishment to recognise our high profile business leaders, even when there is no cash for honours involved. We have tracked the high-profile Rose elsewhere, including his titanic battles with the doughty warrior Sir Philip Green.

Ian Wilmut, who led the team which created Dolly the sheep, is among a handful of scientific names whose achievements pioneered cloning research, and turned him into a public figure. Perhaps less known is his more recent work into stem-cell research. Ian Wilmut was again a near identikit national figure, whose knighthood could be explained as a process which had followed a time-honoured path.

Then there’s Professor Blakemore

Oh, yes. Then there’s Professor Blakemore. Among his fellow scientists there is a resigned acceptance that once again he has been passed over for recognition of his services to science.

On several counts he has been considered for ennoblement over the years. But for quite some time, Professor Blakemore’s advancement has been blocked. According to The Independent he is:

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.

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…

Other scientists also criticized 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

The Blakemore file

Journalists have now returned to an earlier story about the scientist. The affair reached which reached a House of Commons select committee in 2004, after a leaked memo which suggested Blakemore had in fact been blackballed.

Chairman: May I welcome our witness this morning, Professor Sir David King. It is very good of you to come and talk to us. We are not a committee concerned with science but with the administration of public affairs. We are looking, as you know, at the honours system amongst our different inquiries at the moment. You have probably worked out for yourself the line of connection which brings you before us. We had an interesting session a week or so ago with Professor Blakemore, who of course figured in the leak of the honours committee’s work

Sir David then offered some remarks intended to clarify the affair but explained that he was not able to divulge names of members serving on certain official committees [don’t ask me why. Or rather, ask why, although that is another story altogether].

The chairman tried his best to make progress with Sir David.:

Chairman: We are talking [speculatively] but, if I may read the offending leak quotation so that we can get our minds around it, “The (science and technology expert) committee were unlike to recommend [Blakemore] for his scientific work, particularly in view of his controversial work on vivisection. He has now moved to the [Medical Research Council], however, and it was possible his reputation would be improved. We should look at him again when he has had a little longer at the MRC.”

Professor Sir David King: I admire Colin Blakemore unreservedly, not only for his outstanding scientific work on the functioning of the brain but also for his courage in standing up to this very small bunch of extremists ..acting against the democratic interests of the country… I believe that Colin was courageous to stand up and speak on that issue … I would be very surprised if anyone on that …[mysterious Science and Technology] committee expressed a view differently from what I have said to you.

Chairman: That is what we are interested in. That makes it even more perplexing, does it not, because if we have had you the Chief Scientific Adviser heaping this paean of praise on Colin Blakemore, and if we have had the science minister Lord Sainsbury doing something likewise, why on earth do we get this statement that they are “unlikely to recommend him for his scientific work”—so they are saying that his scientific work is not good enough—and then they add “particularly in view of his controversial work on vivisection”. That word “particularly” is a bit of a giveaway there, is it not? It is not just the controversy about vivisection; it is that he is not up to it anyway and particularly because of his work on vivisection.

Professor Sir David King: That phrase is a complete nonsense…

Chairman: Where did the phrase come from?

Professor Sir David King: I believe the secretary wrote it down. I cannot believe that the committee expressed that view.

Chairman: He just made it up?

Professor Sir David King: He or she.

Clearly ..

There’s not much clarity about the process through which honours are dished out, or not, in this instance. Just about the clearest thing is the lack of clarity. [Rumsfeld, this is one for you]. Small wonder that the prolonged investigation into cash for honours never got anywhere, at considerable public expense.

Does it matter?

A messy question for a messy story. Professor Blakemore has demonstrated that his motivation is relatively immune to public acclaim as it has been immune to quite outrageous personal attacks by animal rights activists.

Nevertheless, the issue raises questions about how a culture rewards or withholds rewards for service to the public. It adds support to the idea over time a culture arrives at the leaders it deserves.