Sir Colin Brian Blakemore, FRS, FMedSci (born 1 June 1944), is a British neurobiologist, specialising in vision and the development of the brain, who is Professor of Neuroscience and Philosophy in the School of Advanced Study, University of London and Emeritus Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Oxford. He was formerly Chief Executive of the British Medical Research Council (MRC). He is best known to the public as a communicator of science but also as the target of a long-running animal rights campaign. According to The Observer, he has been both "one of the most powerful scientists in the UK" and "a hate figure for the animal rights movement".
Born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1944, he was educated at King Henry VIII School in Coventry and then won a state scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, England, where he gained a first-class degree in medical sciences. He completed his Doctor of Philosophy in Physiological Optics at the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States, as a Harkness Fellow in 1968. From 1968 to 1979 he was a Demonstrator and then Lecturer in Physiology at the University of Cambridge, and was also Director of Medical Studies at Downing College. From 1976 to 1979 he held the Royal Society Locke Research Fellowship.
He was appointed Waynflete Professor of Physiology and a Fellow of Magdalen College at the University of Oxford in 1979, at the age of 35. He was also Director of the James S. McDonnell and Medical Research Council Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Oxford. He has served as President of the Biosciences Federation, now the Society of Biology, the British Neuroscience Association and the Physiological Society, and as President and Chairman of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, now the British Science Association. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences, Academia Europaea and the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal Society of Medicine, the Institute of Biology, the British Pharmacological Society, the Society of Biology, and of Corpus Christi College and Downing College, University of Cambridge.
In 2012 he was appointed director of the Institute of Philosophy's Centre for the Study of the Senses at the School of Advanced Study in London. He also holds a Honorary Professorship at the University of Warwick, and a Professorship at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore, where he was Chairman and then External Scientific Advisor to the Neuroscience Research Partnership.
Blakemore is a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association and an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Association. In July 2001 he was one of the signatories to a letter published in The Independent which urged the Government to reconsider its support for the expansion of maintained religious schools, and he was one of the 43 scientists and philosophers who signed and sent a letter to Tony Blair and relevant Government departments, concerning the teaching of Creationism in schools in March 2002. He was also one of the signatories to a letter supporting a holiday on Charles Darwin’s birthday, published in The Times on 12 February 2003, and sent to the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary.
Blakemore has been honoured for his scientific achievements with prizes from many academies and societies, including the Royal Society, the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences, the French Académie Nationale de Médecine, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, the BioIndustry Association and the Royal College of Physicians. In 1993 he received the Ellison-Cliffe Medal from the Royal Society of Medicine and in 1996 he won the Alcon Research Institute Award for research relevant to clinical ophthalmology. He has ten Honorary Degrees from British and overseas universities and is a foreign member of several academies of science, including the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences of India, the Indian Academy of Neurosciences, and the Chinese Academy of Engineering. He won the 2010 Royal Society Ferrier Award and Lecture. In 2001 he received the British Neuroscience Association Award for Outstanding Contribution to Neuroscience, and in 2012 the Ralph W. Gerard Prize, the highest award of the Society for Neuroscience. He chairs the Selection Committee for The Brain Prize of Grete Lundbeck's European Brain Research Prize Foundation, the world's most valuable prize for neuroscience (€1 million).
Blakemore first visited China in 1974, during the Cultural Revolution, and collaborated in research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Biophysics, Beijing, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His efforts to develop scientific relations between the United Kingdom and China were recognised in 2012 when he received the Friendship Award, the People's Republic of China's highest award for "foreign experts who have made outstanding contributions to the country's economic and social progress". In 2012 he was appointed a Master of the Beijing DeTao Masters Academy.
Despite a serious illness in his teens, Blakemore developed a lifelong interest in fitness and sport, especially long-distance running. He has completed 18 marathons and won the veteran's section for the British team at the Athens Centenary Marathon in 1996.
Blakemore's research has focused on vision, the early development of the brain and, more recently, conditions such as stroke and Huntington's disease. He has published hundreds of scientific papers and a number of books on these subjects.
His major contribution to neuroscience is the part he played in establishing the concept of neuronal plasticity, the capacity of the brain to reorganise itself as a result of the pattern of activity passing through its connections. Blakemore was one of the first, in the late 1960s, to demonstrate that the visual part of the cerebral cortex undergoes active, adaptive change during a critical period shortly after birth, and he argued that this helps the brain to match itself to the sensory environment. He went on to show that such plasticity results from changes in the shape and structure of nerve cells and the distribution of nerve fibres, and also from the selective death of nerve cells.
Although initially controversial, the idea that the mammalian brain is 'plastic' and adaptive is now a dominant theme in neuroscience. The plasticity of connections between nerve cells is thought to underlie many different types of learning and memory, as well as sensory development. The changes in organisation can be remarkably rapid, even in adults. Blakemore has shown that the visual parts of the human cortex become responsive to input from the other senses, especially touch, in people who have been blind since shortly after birth. After stroke or other forms of brain injury, reorganisation of this sort can help the process of recovery, as other parts of the brain take over the function of the damaged part.
Blakemore's recent work has emphasized the variety of molecular mechanisms that contribute to plasticity and has identified some of the genes involved in enabling nerve cells to modify their connections in response to the flow of nerve impulses through them. He summarised research on brain plasticity in his 2005 Harveian Lecture to the Royal College of Physicians and explored the role of plasticity in human cultural evolution in his 2010 Ferrier Lecture at the Royal Society.
Public engagement and public service
In parallel with his academic career, Blakemore has championed the communication of science and engagement with the public on controversial and challenging aspects.
He has subsequently presented or contributed to hundreds of radio and television broadcasts. He gave the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in 1982-3, and he has written and presented many other programmes about science, including a 13-part series, The Mind Machine on BBC television, a radio series about artificial intelligence, Machines with Minds, and a documentary for Channel 4 television, God and the Scientists. He writes for British and overseas newspapers, especially The Guardian, The Observer, the Daily Telegraph and The Times. He has also written or edited several popular science books, including Mechanics of the Mind, The Mind Machine. Gender and Society, Mindwaves, Images and Understanding and The Oxford Companion to the Body. Since 2004 he has been Honorary President of the Association of British Science Writers.
In 1989, when Blakemore was awarded the Royal Society's Michael Faraday Prize for his work in public communication, the citation described him as "one of Britain's most influential communicators of science”. Blakemore has won many other awards for his work in public communication and education, including the Phi Beta Kappa Award for contribution to the literature of science, the John P McGovern Science and Society Medal from Sigma Xi, the Edinburgh Medal from the City of Edinburgh and the Science Educator Award from the Society for Neuroscience.
Blakemore has worked for many medical charities and not-for-profit organizations, including SANE, the International Brain Injury Association, Headway, Sense (The National Deafblind & Rubella Association), the Louise T Blouin Foundation, Sense about Science and the Pilgrim Trust. He is President of the Motor Neurone Disease Association and the Brain Tumour Charity, Vice President of the Progressive Supranuclear Palsy Association and a Patron of Dignity in Dying.
He helped the Dana Foundation of New York to establish the European Dana Alliance for the Brain, an alliance of leading European neuroscientists who are committed to raising awareness of the importance of brain research. A large donation from the Dana Foundation to the Science Museum completed the funding for the Dana Centre on Queen's Gate in London, which became a focus for public engagement with science.
He has been a Fellow of the World Economic Forum, and he is Honorary President of the World Cultural Council, a member of the World Federation of Scientists and a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association. He is one of the patrons of the Oxford University Scientific Society and an Honorary Member of the Cambridge Union Society. He is Deputy Chair of the Board of Directors of the Campaign for Science and Engineering.
Blakemore has served in an advisory role for several UK government departments and also for agencies, foundations and government departments overseas. He was a member of the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones (the Stewart Committee) in 1999-2000 and was an advisor to the Police Federation and the Home Office on the safety of telecommunications systems. He chairs the General Advisory Committee on Science at the Food Standards Agency and is a member of the Wilton Park Advisory Council (Foreign and Commonwealth Office). He has a long-standing interest in policy on drugs of abuse, and is a Commissioner of the UK Drug Policy Commission, an adviser to the Beckley Foundation and a Trustee of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs. He was an author of an influential paper published in the Lancet in 2007, introducing a rational, evidence-based system for assessing the harms of drugs, which suggested that alcohol and tobacco are more harmful than many illegal drugs. He is a member of the Longevity Science Advisory Panel of Legal & General, he sits on the European Advisory Board of Princeton University Press and he has served as a scientific advisor to the Technology Development Committee of Abu Dhabi.
Animal testing and animal rights
He came to the attention of the animal rights movement while at Oxford University in the 1980s, when he carried out research into amblyopia and strabismus, conducting experiments that involved sewing kittens' eyelids shut from birth in order to study the development of their visual cortex. Blakemore has said of the research that it was directly applicable to humans, and that "[t]hanks to it, and similar research, we now know why conditions like amblyopia — the most common form of child blindness — occur and are now able to tackle it and think of ways of preventing it."
Subsequently, according to The Observer, he and his family "endured assaults by masked terrorists, bombs sent to his children, letters laced with razor blades, a suicide bid by his wife, and more than a decade of attacks and abuse."
In 1992, together with Les Ward of the anti-vivisection group Advocates for Animals, he co-founded a bipartisan think tank called the Boyd Group, to consider issues relating to animal experimentation.
In 1998, during the 68-day hunger strike of British animal-rights activist Barry Horne, Blakemore's life was threatened in a statement released by Robin Webb of the Animal Liberation Press Office on behalf of the Animal Rights Militia. Direct action against him has abated since the prosecution of Cynthia O'Neill for harassing him in 2000.
Blakemore has advocated frank and full public debate about animal research and has worked to persuade other researchers to be more open. He has been chair of the Coalition for Medical Progress, the Research Defence Society and Understanding Animal Research, an organisation devoted to making the case for responsible use of animals in research, which was launched in 2008.
Medical Research Council
In 2003, Blakemore succeeded Professor Sir George Radda as the head of the Medical Research Council, a national organisation that supports medical science with an annual budget of more than £700 million. The reputation of the Medical Research Council had been damaged by what was perceived as financial mismanagement, the introduction of unpopular funding schemes and a lack of transparency in its dealings with researchers. Blakemore launched a national roadshow to consult the scientific community and quickly changed the mechanisms for handling funds, rationalised the grant schemes, introduced new forms of support for young researchers and overhauled the communications policies of the MRC.
He maintained his research activity in Oxford during his period of office and said "I want to be seen as the scientist, not the bureaucrat at the top. No, I want to be seen as the scientist in the middle."
Blakemore initiated a comprehensive review of the MRC's strategy and argued for a stronger commitment to clinical research and to the translation of basic research into benefits for patients. These actions anticipated Sir David Cooksey's 2006 "Review of UK health research funding", which resulted in closer working between the MRC and the Departments of Health, but which recommended that "funding levels for basic science should be sustained". In the Comprehensive Spending Review at the end of Blakemore's term of office, the budget of the MRC was increased by more than one third over three years. He was succeeded at the MRC by Leszek Borysiewicz.
On the completion of his appointment at the MRC in 2007, Blakemore returned to a Professorship of Neuroscience at Oxford before his appointment at the University of London in 2012.
Soon after his appointment to the MRC The Sunday Times published a leaked British Cabinet Office document that suggested he was deemed unsuitable for inclusion in the 2004 New Year's Honours List because of his research on animals - research considered "controversial" by a British government committee that oversees matters of science and technology despite being widely supported by political leaders and the public. In response, he threatened to resign, suggesting in interviews that his position as chief executive was now untenable:
It's a matter of principle. The mission statement of the MRC is explicit. There's a specific commitment to talk to the public about issues in medical research. How can I now go to our scientists, and ask them to risk talking about animal research, when there now appears to be evidence that in secret the government disapproves it, even though in public they've strongly encouraged it?
A parliamentary inquiry investigating the matter implicated the Science and Technology Committee chaired by Sir Richard Mottram. After expressions of support for animal experimentation from then Prime Minister Tony Blair; Chief Scientific Adviser David King; Minister for Science Lord Sainsbury; and the wider scientific community, Blakemore withdrew his threat to resign.
Until 2014, he was the only MRC chief executive unrecognised by the British honours system. He was knighted in the 2014 Birthday Honours for services to scientific research, policy, and outreach.
National Institute for Medical Research taskforce
In 2003 the MRC announced plans to consider moving the National Institute for Medical Research, its largest research facility, from its current location in Mill Hill to a new site in central London. As part of the consultation process a taskforce was convened, with Blakemore as chairman, to consider options for the size and location of the new NIMR. During the process a number of senior staff at NIMR, including the then Director, Sir John Skehel, opposed a move being proposed as the only option believing "staying at Mill Hill should be considered."
Robin Lovell-Badge, a scientist at NIMR who was a member of the taskforce, proposed this option be included in the official publication of the taskforce, something that Blakemore and the majority of other members were opposed to. After disagreeing on the issue, Lovell-Badge alleged that Blakemore had twice attempted to "coerce" him into agreement by threatening his job. Blakemore denied the allegations, describing them as "pure invention".
A House of Commons select committee investigated the claims. They found "no specific credible evidence" to support the complaint, reporting the allegation "would have carried more weight had it been made at the time rather than in public during the final stages of the decision making process when relations between NIMR and MRC management had fallen into mutual animosity."
The committee did criticise Blakemore for "heavy-handed" lobbying of other taskforce members and reported that a "more independent" figure than Blakemore should have chaired the taskforce. However, the report also criticised unnamed senior NIMR staff for an attempt at "undermining Blakemore's position."
The MRC has maintained its commitment to relocate NIMR and has entered into partnership with the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK, University College London, Imperial College London and King's College London, to create the Francis Crick Institute on a site adjacent to the British Library and St Pancras Station in London.
- "Birthday's today". The Telegraph. 1 June 2011. Retrieved 31 May 2014. "Prof Colin Blakemore, Professor of Neuroscience, Oxford University, 67"
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- Blakemore, C. (2003). "Raising profile.( Colin Blakemore, the new chief executive of the Medical Research Council interviewed by Nigel Williams)". Current biology : CB 13 (23): R891. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2003.11.002. PMID 14654006.
- Barbour, V. (2003). "Colin Blakemore". The Lancet 362 (9395): 1590–1598. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(03)14769-1. PMID 14615136.
- McKie, Robin. "Scientist who stood up to terrorism and mob hate faces his toughest test". The Observer, 14 September 2003.
- Prof Colin Blakemore portrait, The Daily Telegraph, 26 June 2008
- , NewStatesman, 28 February 2008
- Colin Blakemore FMedSci FRCP (Hon) FIBiol (Hon) FRS
- Blakemore, C.; Tobin, E. (1972). "Lateral inhibition between orientation detectors in the cat's visual cortex". Experimental Brain Research 15 (4). doi:10.1007/BF00234129.
- Blakemore, C.; Cooper, G. F. (1970). "Development of the Brain depends on the Visual Environment". Nature 228 (5270): 477–478. doi:10.1038/228477a0. PMID 5482506.
- Barlow, H.; Blakemore, C.; Pettigrew, J. (1967). "The neural mechanism of binocular depth discrimination". The Journal of physiology 193 (2): 327–342. PMC 1365600. PMID 6065881.
- Blakemore, C. (2005). "In celebration of cerebration". Lancet 366 (9502): 2035–2057. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(05)67816-6. PMID 16353318.
- "BBC Radio 4 unveils 60 years of Reith Lectures archive". BBC News. 26 June 2011.
- "Board of Directors". Retrieved 2013-04-25.
- Nutt, D. J., King, L. A., Saulsbury, W. & Blakemore, C. (2007) "Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse". Lancet 369: 1047-1053.
- Princeton University Press, European Advisory Board
- Fleet, Michael and Davies, Caroline. "Animal rights woman must keep away from don's home". The Daily Telegraph, 24 February 2000.
- "Communication breakdown". Nature 422 (6932): 545–545. 2003. doi:10.1038/422545a.
- Fazackerley, Anna. "Colin Blakemore: Professor No?" The Guardian 11 November 2003. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2003/nov/11/health.education
- Leppard, David and Winnett, Robert. "Cursing mandarin in knighthood row". The Sunday Times, 15 February 2004.
- Walgate, Robert. "Blakemore Denied Knighthood", The Scientist, 23 December 2003
- Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence, 29 April 2004
- Walgate, Robert. "MRC chief withdraws threat to resign from his post", The Scientist, 13 January 2004
- The London Gazette: . 14 June 2014.
- Davies, Caroline (13 June 2014). "Angelina Jolie made dame in thousand-strong Queen's birthday honours list". The Guardian. Retrieved 13 June 2014.
- Select Committee on Science and Technology Fourth Report: 5 Campaign by NIMR, 8 February 2005
- Hagan, Pat NIMR inquiry criticizes MRC, The Scientist, 8 February 2005
- Select Committee on Science and Technology Fourth Report: 4 The Task Force, 8 February 2005
- "Blakemore criticised for 'heavy-handed' research review", Press Association, 8 February 2005.
- The Next Big Thing - 11 freeview video science discussion programmes chaired by Colin Blakemore produced by the BBC and the Vega Science Trust.
- McKie, Robin. "Snubbed honours scientist 'to quit'". The Observer, 21 December 2003.
- Select Committee on Public Administration, Minutes of Evidence. Examination of Witness (Questions 608-639). 29 April 2004.
- The 1976 BBC Reith Lectures by Colin Blakemore: Mechanics of the Mind