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.