Wednesday, 17 April 2013

How the Wellcome Trust once thumbed their noses at Margaret Thatcher

On the day of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher's funeral, it seems appropriate to flag up a wonderful story from the history of the Wellcome Trust. I first came across it while researching interesting aspects of Wellcome's history for their 75th anniversary project, when I was seconded to the public engagement team. My job was to tease out a dozen tales from Wellcome's history that demonstrated its impact, influence and achievement.

In 1989, Margaret Thatcher pulled funding from a survey run from UCL that would assess the state of the nation's sex lives and attitudes towards it. She believed the survey was "an invasion of people's privacy and did not want her government to be associated with it." Sir Donald Acheson, the Chief Medical Officer of the day, saw its importance and went to the then director of the Wellcome Trust, Peter Williams with a plea. Anne Johnson, lead investigator of the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL) sent her original grant application to Williams and nine days later Wellcome's scientific committee recommended to their Trustees that they provide the full funding for the survey: £900,000. The Trustees unaninmously agreed that same day.

Journalist Mike Durham with his Sunday Times story about Margaret Thatcher blocking NATSAL funding. 
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Some involved in the decision were concerned that Wellcome might appear to be "thumbing their noses" to the Prime Minister. Fortunately, they also believed that politicians should not have "a veto on a well-designed study that many saw as key to the tackling of a looming medical emergency."

And it seems Wellcome's scientific committee and its Trustees made the right decision. The rest of the story is published on the Wellcome Trust's website, as written by Nic Fleming following mine and Benjamin Thompson's initial research.

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