Primate centre 'was set to fail'

January 30, 2004

Plans to build a primate research centre in Cambridge were misguided and destined to fail, Colin Blakemore, the chief executive of the Medical Research Council, said this week, writes Anna Fazackerley.

Cambridge University announced on Tuesday that it would not be going ahead with plans for the controversial centre after costs escalated from £24 million to more than £32 million, in part due to security costs required to protect it against antivivisection campaigners.

It was to have been sited on the same road as Huntingdon Life Sciences, which is already a target for antivivisectionists. Professor Blakemore told The THES that the university should never have attempted to build the facility on such an exposed site, away from mainstream science.

He said animal research should not be carried out in isolated centres, arguing this not only created a major security risk - causing costs to spiral - but also gave the impression that this research was not part of traditional science.

"I think animal research ought to be funded where it belongs, among the science departments that support it, and that may be the outcome of this.

We might have lost the building but we will not lose the science," he said.

Professor Blakemore added: "It (the centre) would have been represented permanently by the animal-rights lobby as a windowless temple of animal torture, and there was no way of avoiding that."

The university has been discussing other options with key funders for some weeks.

There has been speculation that the Wellcome Trust, which provided the original £24 million for the centre, is considering dividing the funding between similar but less prominent projects in a small number of universities.

Mark Walport, the trust's director, said: "The money that has not been spent will go back into our general funds and we will use it for our research portfolio." Nonetheless, he stressed that his organisation would continue to support primate research.

In response to Professor Blakemore's comments about the Cambridge site, Dr Walport said: "It is always easy to be clever in retrospect. This was a perfectly reasonable proposal put forward by Cambridge, and it was very carefully peer reviewed."

Cambridge's withdrawal from the centre has been viewed by many scientists as a worrying victory for animal-rights activists.

Mark Matfield, director of the Research Defence Society, said: "The government needs to bring in tougher legislation to tackle extremist campaigns. Otherwise they will remain a threat."

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