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Rothschild reversed: explaining the exceptionalism of biomedical research, 1971–1981

  • STEPHEN M. DAVIES (a1)
Abstract

The ‘Rothschild reforms’ of the early 1970s established a new framework for the management of government-funded science. The subsequent dismantling of the Rothschild system for biomedical research and the return of funds to the Medical Research Council (MRC) in 1981 were a notable departure from this framework and ran contrary to the direction of national science policy. The exceptionalism of these measures was justified at the time with reference to the ‘particular circumstances’ of biomedical research. Conventional explanations for the reversal in biomedical research include the alleged greater competence and higher authority of the MRC, together with its claimed practical difficulties. Although they contain some elements of truth, such explanations are not wholly convincing. Alternative explanations hinge on the behaviour of senior medical administrators, who closed ranks to ensure that de facto control was yielded to the MRC. This created an accountability deficit, which the two organizations jointly resolved by dismantling the system for commissioning biomedical research. The nature and working of medical elites were central to this outcome.

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Copyright
Footnotes
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I wish to thank Mary Henkel, Susanne MacGregor, Miles Parker and Martin Gorsky for their comments on various drafts, as well as the two anonymous peer reviewers for their insightful and constructive feedback. I would also like to acknowledge the support of the late Professor Walter Holland, who was consistently generous in his encouragement of my research interests.

Footnotes
References
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1 Cmnd. 4814, A Framework for Government Research and Development, London: HMSO, 1971.

2 Cmnd. 7499, Review of the Framework for Government Research and Development (Cmnd. 5046), London: HMSO, 1979. Cm. 2250, Realising Our Potential: A Strategy for Science, Engineering and Technology, London: HMSO, 1993.

3 Miles Parker, ‘The Rothschild Report (1971) and the purpose of government-funded R & D: a personal account’, Palgrave Communications, 2 August 2016, DOI: 10.1057/palcomms.2016.53. Neil Calver and Miles Parker, ‘The logic of scientific unity? Medawar, the Royal Society and the Rothschild controversy 1971–72’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, October 2015, DOI 10.1098/rsnr.2015.0021. Myelnikov, Dmitriy, ‘Cuts and the cutting edge: British science funding and the making of animal technology in 1980s Edinburgh’, BJHS (2017) 50(4), pp. 701728.

4 The Department of Health and Social Security in England and Wales and the Scottish Home and Health Department (SHHD) in Scotland.

5 Cmnd. 7499, op. cit. (2).

6 In the UK, a Green Paper is a government document setting out initial policy proposals for consultation. A White Paper sets out government proposals for future legislation. See www.parliament.uk.

7 Blackstone, Tessa and Plowden, William, Inside the Think Tank: Advising the Cabinet 1971–1983, London: Heinemann, 1988, p. 42.

8 Williams, Roger, ‘Some political aspects of the Rothschild Affair’, Science Studies (1973) 3, pp. 3146. Duffy, Michael P., ‘The Rothschild experiment: health science policy and society in Britain’, Science, Technology and Human Values (1986) 11(1), pp. 6878.

9 Cmnd. 4814, op. cit. (1), paras. 6–7.

10 Cmnd. 4814, op. cit. (1), paras. 10–19.

11 Williams, op. cit. (8), p. 31.

12 Analysis of letters to the chief scientific adviser on Cmnd. 4814, National Archives (hereafter NA) CAB 164/1118.

13 Cmnd. 5046, Framework for Government Research and Development, London: HMSO, 1972.

14 These were the departments receiving the largest transfers of funds. Other departments were also assigned smaller customer roles. For medical research, this included the SHHD, with the DHSS acting as lead commissioner.

15 Cmnd. 5046, op. cit. (13), para. 50.

16 Cmnd. 5046, op. cit. (13), paras. 48–54.

17 ‘Notes of a meeting on commissioning of biomedical research’, 22 November 1979, NA MH 166/1438.

18 Cmnd. 7499, op. cit. (2), paras. 48–49.

19 Lord Privy Seal to PM, 28 February 1979, NA CAB 164/1487.

20 Cmnd. 7499, op. cit. (2), Appendix 1(E), para. 11.

21 Parker, op. cit. (3) – but note author's ref. 16 for ‘unhealed scars’.

22 Gummett, Philip, Scientists in Whitehall, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980, pp. 204205.

23 Hayes to Armstrong, 12 February 1980, NA MH 166/1438.

24 Holgate to Armstrong, 8 February 1980, NA MH 166/1438.

25 House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, ‘Science and government, volume 1: report’, session 1981–1982, 1st report HL(20-I).

26 Cm. 2250, op. cit. (2), p. 42.

27 Social-security research became the responsibility of the DHSS in 1968, following the merger of the Ministries of Health and Social Security.

28 Cohen, Richard H.L., ‘The department's role in research and development’, in McLachlan, Gordon (ed.), Portfolio for Health: The Role and Programme of the DHSS in Health Services Research, London: published for the Nuffield Provincial Hospitals Trust by the Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 121.

29 Stephen M. Davies, ‘Organisation and policy for research and development: the Health Department for England and Wales, 1961–1986’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of London, 2017, pp. 131–133, at http://researchonline.lshtm.ac.uk/4646130.

30 Davies, op. cit. (29), pp. 193–206.

31 Louis Moss, ‘Some attitudes towards research’, June 1977, NA BN 82/110.

32 ‘Management review: preliminary survey report’, NA BN 152/2, p. 22.

33 ‘Management review: report of Study 7, planning and control of research and development’, NA BN 152/9, pp. 82–99.

34 DMB 16(78), NA MH 166/1440.

35 M.D. Gordon and A.J. Meadows, ‘The dissemination of findings of DHSS-funded research’, University of Leicester, Primary Communications Research Centre, 1981.

36 The Social Science Research Unit and the Biomechanical Research and Development Unit, based at St Mary's Hospital, Roehampton.

37 House of Commons, ‘Report of the comptroller and auditor general’, in Appropriation Accounts, vol. 3: Classes X–XV and XV11, 1977–78, London: HMSO, 1979.

38 House of Commons, Committee of Public Accounts, Session 1978–79: Minutes of Evidence, Wednesday 14 March 1979, London: HMSO, 1979.

39 ‘Review of the revised arrangements for the commissioning of biomedical research by the health departments’, NA MH 166/1438.

40 House of Commons, Committee of Public Accounts, Session 1978–79: First Report of the Committee of Public Accounts, London: HMSO, 1979, para. 52.

41 It becomes more relevant at this point to talk about HSR than about HPSSR because the MRC had no desire to take on any aspect of personal social services research.

42 ‘Notes of a meeting on commissioning of biomedical research’, op. cit. (17).

43 Hamilton to Armstrong, 7 February 1980, NA MH 166/1438.

44 Ryrie to Armstrong, 26 February 1980, NA MH 166/1438.

45 Hansard, vol. 991, cols. 266–268.

46 Buller, Arthur and Gowans, James L., ‘Medical research and the funding of the MRC’, British Medical Journal (7 March 1981) 282, p. 820.

47 Duffy, op. cit. (8), p. 76.

48 Black, Douglas, Recollections and Reflections, London: The Memoir Club, 1987, pp. 6478. Reynolds, L.A. and Tansey, E.M., Clinical Research in Britain 1950–1980, London: The Wellcome Trust, 2000, p. 50.

49 Professor Arthur Buller in interview with Dr Max Blythe, Oxford Brookes University Twentieth Century Medical Video Archive, MSVA 117/118, vol. 3, Oxford, November 1995.

50 Davies, op. cit. (29), pp. 85–86.

51 Obituary, Richard Cohen (anon.), The Times, 3 February 1998, 21. Wilson, James M.G., ‘Richard Cohen: first chief scientist at the DHSS’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (1998) 91, pp. 222224.

52 Munk's Roll, vol. 12, http://munksroll.rcplondon.ac.uk/Biography/Details/5589, accessed October 2017.

53 Maurice Kogan and Mary Henkel, Government and Research, London: Heinemann, 1983.

54 Kogan and Henkel, op. cit. (53), pp. 166–168.

55 Kogan and Henkel, op. cit. (53), p. 62.

56 Kogan and Henkel, op. cit. (53), pp. 58–59.

57 Kogan and Henkel, op. cit. (53), p. 67.

58 Reynolds and Tansey, op. cit. (48), p. 53.

59 House of Commons, Committee of Public Accounts, op. cit. (38), paras. 1287–1364, opening statement by Gowans at 1288.

60 House of Commons, Committee of Public Accounts, op. cit. (38), paras. 1289, 1298.

61 House of Commons, Committee of Public Accounts, op. cit. (38), para. 1362.

62 This is true of both the first and updated editions. The latter includes no further information on the return of funds, other than to note that this occurred. See Kogan, Maurice, Henkel, Mary and Hanney, Stephen, Government and Research: Thirty Years of Evolution, Dordrecht: Springer, 2006, p. 192.

63 Interview with Mary Henkel, London, December 2017. See Kogan and Henkel, op. cit. (53), pp. vii–viii for research phases; for output from this later phase see Henkel, Mary and Kogan, Maurice, The DHSS Funded Research Units: The Process of Review, Uxbridge: Brunel University, 1981.

64 Medical Research Council, Annual Report 1976/7, London: MRC, 1977, p. 4.

65 ‘MRC commissioned funds 1977/8 and 1978/9’, 18 June 1978, NA MH 166/1438.

66 Cmnd. 7499, op. cit. (2), para. 37.

67 Reynolds and Tansey, op. cit. (48), p. 53.

68 Cmnd. 5046, op. cit. (13), para. 52.

69 Paget to Caff, 24 October 1979, NA MH 166/1438.

70 House of Commons, op. cit. (37), pp. xv–xvi.

71 Clarke, Sabine, ‘Pure science with a practical aim: the meanings of fundamental research in Britain, circa 1916–1950’, Isis (2010) 101, pp. 285311; Löwy, Ilana, ‘Historiography of biomedicine: “bio” “medicine” and in between’, Isis (2011) 102, pp. 116122. Bud, Robert, ‘Framed in the public sphere: tools for the conceptual history of “applied science” – a review paper’, History of Science (2013) 51, pp. 413433.

72 ‘The views of the Medical Research Council on the Green Paper “A Framework for Government Research and Development”, Cmnd. 4814’, NA FD9/1652, para. 8.

73 Quirke, Viviane and Gaudillière, Jean-Paul, ‘The era of biomedicine: science, medicine and public health in Britain and France after the Second World War’, Medical History (2008) 52, pp. 441452.

74 Austoker, Joan and Bryder, Linda, Historical Perspectives on the Role of the MRC, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

75 Medical Research Council and Ministry of Health and the Department of Health for Scotland, Clinical Research in Relation to the National Health Service, London: HMSO, 1953, para. 5. See also Cmd. 8876, Report of the Medical Research Council for the Year 1951–52, Committee of Privy Council for Medical Research, London: HMSO, 1953.

76 Cohen, op. cit. (28).

77 NA FD 9/1283.

78 File note of talk with Dr Cohen, 16 July 1971, NA CAB 168/236.

79 Thomson, Arthur Landsborough, Half a Century of Medical Research, vol. 2: The Programme of the Medical Research Council, London, HMSO, 1975. See Chapter 8 for Thomson's narrower definition of biomedical research.

80 NA FD 9/1651 PPC71/77.

81 Note the distinction between the full council as the governing body of the MRC and the paid officers, who were appointed by the council to serve as the executive arm of the organization. This became particularly significant in practice during early 1972 as the paid officers sought a more conciliatory approach than that favoured by full council. See NA FD 9/1651.

82 ‘Arrangements for commissioning biomedical research, arrangements for co-operation in the field of biomedical research’, Betts to Bridgeman, 24 August 1973, NA MH 166/1322.

83 Garrett, John, The Management of Government, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972, pp. 1621, 71–75.

84 Mackenzie, William J.M., Power and Responsibility in Health Care: The National Health Service as a Political Institution, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979, pp. 154155.

85 Sheard, Sally, ‘Quacks and clerks: historical and contemporary perspectives on the structure and function of the British medical civil service’, Social Policy and Administration (2010) 44(2), pp. 193207.

86 Cohen, Richard H.L., ‘The DHSS and the MRC: the first chief scientist looks back’, in McLachlan, Gordon (ed.), Matters of Moment: Problems and Progress in Medical Care. Thirteenth Series Essays on Current Research, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981, pp. 124.

87 Cohen, op. cit. (86), p. 13.

88 NA MH 123/498.

89 Cochrane is candid about the importance for his career of his friendships with Richard Cohen, Max Wilson and others at DHSS: see Cochrane, Archibald and Blythe, Max, One Man's Medicine: An Autobiography of Professor Archie Cochrane, London: British Medical Journal, 1989, pp. 206, 215. Cohen's introduction gives a startling insight into shared social background when he reports his father's butler's opinion that Cochrane was the only one of his friends with the underclothes of a gentleman.

90 Godber to Owen, 19 January 1972, NA FD 9/1652.

91 NA MH 166/1323, various – see especially Gray to Cohen, 13 September 1972.

92 Rogers to Armstrong, 10 August 1972, NA BN 13/194.

93 Black, op. cit. (48), p. 71.

94 Sir Douglas Black in interview with Sir Gordon Wolstenhome, Oxford Brookes University Twentieth Century Medical Video Archive, MSVA 023, May 1987. See also Black, op. cit. (48), p. 71.

95 Douglas Black Archive, Wellcome Library GC/45/C-1, papers on Rothschild Mk 1.

96 Buller interview, op. cit. (49).

97 Gowans to Buller, 8 November 1978, NA FD 9/4545.

98 House of Commons, op. cit. (37), xiv.

99 ‘Commissioned biomedical research’, Paget to Foster, 10 October 1979, NA MH 166/1438.

100 Buller to Nairne, 22 November 1979, NA MH 166/1438.

101 Nairne to Yellowlees, Buller and others, 8 October 1979, NA MH 166/1438.

102 Wilkie, Tom, British Science and Politics since 1945, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991, pp. 8897.

103 Cmnd. 5046, op. cit. (13), para. 50.

104 Myelnikov, op. cit. (3), pp. 708–709.

105 Shergold, Miriam and Grant, Jonathan, ‘Freedom and need: the evolution of public strategy for biomedical and health research in England’, Health Policy Research and Systems (2008) 6(2), DOI: 10.1186/1478-4505-6-2.

I wish to thank Mary Henkel, Susanne MacGregor, Miles Parker and Martin Gorsky for their comments on various drafts, as well as the two anonymous peer reviewers for their insightful and constructive feedback. I would also like to acknowledge the support of the late Professor Walter Holland, who was consistently generous in his encouragement of my research interests.

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