The sight seer

May 24, 1996

Colin Blakemore's experiments on the eyes of monkeys and kittens have earned him a top research prize Q and bombs and threats from animal activists. Colin Blakemore seems more relieved than jubilant to have won the prestigious Alcon prize for vision research. The $100,000 prize, awarded by the Alcon Research Institute, is for work that has contributed to ophthalmology. So Blakemore feels it is a powerful demonstration that his efforts have been of use to humankind.

But why should a man who has been a professor of physiology at Oxford since he was 35 feel in need of such reassurance? It is because there are a few people deeply committed to the idea that his work has been of no human relevance. As a result of his experiments on monkeys and kittens, these people have, for years, been posting him bombs and razor blades and threatening his children.

To understand the inflammatory aspect of Blakemore's research, consider this. Every year people in white coats cut the extra ocular muscles of hundreds of small, soft, adorable creatures. The creatures are human babies, the operation does not hurt and it corrects an unsightly and damaging eye condition. But Blakemore used to perform this operation on anaesthetised kittens as part of his investigations into the workings of vision. This is what sparked his opponents' anger.

Blakemore is now involved in a thriving brain research community at Oxford, which is sufficiently interdisciplinary to rope in philosophers and robot scientists. But his victimisation has ebbed and flowed. It began in earnest in 1987, after legislation on animal experimentation under which research could be halted if there was sufficient public outcry. Animal Aid, a nonextremist animal rights group, was looking for a test case Q and what would be more likely to provoke public disgust than a tale of furry baby animals and, for many, that most squeamish of bodily organs, the eye?

The campaign to have his work halted did not succeed. But it left Blakemore exposed. He says: "Animal Aid have long since abandoned the campaign because they said it attracts the attention of the irrational fringe." But the damage had been done.

Blakemore keeps talking in public Q and keeps getting the unwanted attention. Outside his crowded office in the Oxford physiology department, full of books, an original Francis Bacon lithograph and the requisite Gary Larson cartoon on the noticeboard, is a highly security-conscious department. His home is monitored by the police and his address is secret.

Watching undergraduates flood into the building and glimpsing Blakemore's busy life one suddenly glimpses his vulnerability Q and that of his wife and three daughters.

But people are working on bridging the divide between animal welfarists and animal experimenters. Blakemore, along with the Rev Kenneth Boyd from Edinburgh University and Les Ward of Advocates for Animals, has set up a discussion group to which he has, remarkably, attracted scientists, research funders and members of major animal welfare and rights groups.

Their first discovery, Blakemore says, was that they had a lot in common: "That has been a revelation to everybody. We have sat down without really serious disagreement." He says they all agree that "scientists must make as the first priority the reduction of pain and suffering in animal experiments; that we must make every possible effort to reduce the number of animals in research; that violence against scientists must be condemned". On the crucial question of whether either side is shifting its position he says: "Movement would be good on both sides but that is not a necessary first step."

The group has produced a report calling for research institutes to consider establishing ethics committees with lay membership, a remarkable suggestion from a community of scientists fearful that critical campaigners might insinuate themselves on to such committees. The group is also improving cost-benefit analysis of animal research, or "how one might better quantify pain and suffering". Blakemore says more use should be made of clever new experiments that ask the animals about their feelings, by giving them choices of action, for example. He says the group has agreed that "benefit" must include work that adds to human knowledge, not just immediate advances in medicine.

But despite this progress, the threat still hangs over Blakemore. Certainly the scope of his experimentation on living animals has declined. The cat and monkey research (six monkeys a year, slightly more cats) involves a single experiment under general anaesthetic and then a painless death. They are "the most atraumatic procedures".

"This is not an admission that anything was wrong with previous approaches, it is the inevitable way in which science progresses," he says.

But Blakemore does not expect the threats to end. Rather, he believes he is still targeted because of his willingness to speak in public about animal experiments. The attacks, he points out, are never associated with a particular experiment. "No one said anything when they sent a bomb to my home. No one said anything when they threatened to kidnap my children. No one said anything when they sent razor-blades in an envelope which cut my secretary's fingers."

"I suspect that I am a target because I speak out in defence of research I What kind of anarchy is it that drives people to suppress debate?" He has, nevertheless, willingly taken on the role of spokesperson.

When the dangers started, he says, "I didn't take the advice I got from my colleagues to keep my head down. Sometimes I wonder whether it was the right strategy. I'm afraid that has just got me labelled as more and more of a target".

Publicity will increase in August 1997 when he takes up the presidency of the British Association. He plans to model his presidency on that of Sir Claus Moser, who used it to promote his National Commission on Education. Moser is "a model for what this otherwise meaningless title can achieve".

Blakemore's current passion, to which he might devote his presidency, is the perilous state of the science base. He wants to tell the Government about "the damage that has already been done, the potential, still, to recover, and the essential role that science must play in the future of the country ... Britain lives on its wits, it does not have great natural resources I we're only going to survive in the world by invention, by discovery. We're not going to survive by selling each other things in supermarkets or by privatising national industries. That's not a long-term solution."

He wants to remedy the "inefficiency of communication between the scientists working at the bench, the ferment of ideas, and the pronouncements of ministers on the basis of scientific advice. There is something very wrong with the process.

"At the moment the views of science get so strained and filtered before they ever reach a minister that they are transformed, politically massaged beyond recognition." The solution is to set up "some way in which government could rapidly consult a broad range of scientists".

If government did consult scientists as opposed to consulting civil servants who occasionally talk to scientific advisers who may have been away from the bench for a very long time and only talk to their old-school-tie chums Q whatever, it's a parody I know Q then they would get a much more balanced view.

"We have been discussing the way in which the BA could become the focus for scientific communication in the broadest sense." The vision is of a high-tech world of the near future, where the BA pioneers advice on internet pages, via teleconferencing and consensus conferences.

The BA, he says, could also become a forum in which scientists consider ethical issues that are affecting one sector of their community. Scientists remote from the subject would help reach a more dispassionate consensus on its ethics. "Is it right only to ask biological scientists about the issue of animal experimentation? They have a vested interest."

He breaks off his talk for a phone call about a respray for his car: paint-stripper had been poured over it the previous day. Another brief glimpse of the bleaker side of the life of Colin Blakemore.

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