War of the boffins: 'demob-happy' chief scientist under attack

There's never been anything quite like it in the staid world of government science.

For weeks Professor Sir David King, the chief scientist who leaves his job at the end of the month, has been giving his views on controversial issues ranging from badger culling to homeopathic medicine. Now critics are accusing him of being "demob-happy" and of "totalitarian paranoia".

The editors of two of Britain's top scientific journals have both taken him to task, as have the environmental spokesmen of both main opposition parties. And an environmental group has written to the Prime Minister demanding Professor King issues a public apology.

Much the most colourful attack so far has come from Dr Richard Horton, the editor of medical journal The Lancet, who accuses the chief scientist of "letting off blasts of hot and sometimes rancid air to relieve the dyspeptic frustrations of seven years in the most uncomfortable job in science".

Praising Professor King for his "boldness" in persuading the Government to take climate change seriously, he condemns his parting shots as "a sorrowful end to a not undistinguished term of office".

Writing in his blog, Dr Horton takes issue with an attack earlier this month by Professor King on the BBC's Today programme and The Daily Mail for their coverage of GM crops and the MMR vaccine. The chief scientist said blocking GM crops was "costing us 2bn-4bn a year in lost revenues" to biotech companies and that the vaccine campaign "has potentially led to a situation where we could have 50 or 100 children dying of measles in the UK".

Dr Horton responds: "King takes his faith in science into the realms of totalitarian paranoia. If he lost the debate on GM, it was because his arguments failed to convince people. If we failed to shore up public confidence in MMR, we should look at our own failings, not blame others.

"King seems biased and even anti-democratic. It seems he would prefer the media not to exist at all. That is a troubling position for the Government's chief scientist to adopt."

Dr Horton's onslaught follows a reprimand by Nature, the scientific journal, over his response to a study that advised ministers not to cull badgers to combat the spread of TB in cattle.

The study carried out over a decade by an independent scientific group headed by Professor John Bourne concluded that killing badgers, which harbour the disease, would not control it and might make it worse. Professor King convened a panel of experts, who, after meeting for just a day and a half and without talking to Professor Bourne's group, issued a report of their own supporting culling in certain circumstances. Professor Bourne responded by calling the report "very superficial" and "very selective".

Nature said: "The mishandling of the issue by David King is an example to governments of how not to deal with such advice."

Last week Professor King was also attacked by Jayne Thomas, the vice-chair of the Society of Homeopaths, for alleging that "homeopathic so-called medicine" was "a risk to the population" and that "there is not one jot of evidence supporting the notion homeopathic medicines are of any assistance whatsoever".

And GM Freeze, a pressure group, has written to the Prime Minister and Professor King demanding an apology for wrongly giving the impression that a successful agricultural project in Africa used GM. Professor King accepts he made an "honest mistake".

Yesterday, Peter Ainsworth, the shadow environment secretary said: "It seems Sir David may be a little demob-happy."

Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, added: "It is a shame Sir David did not give us some of his more controversial opinions earlier in his career when he would have been in a better position to take part in an ongoing debate."

Yesterday, Professor King denied being demob-happy and added: "Explaining the science is what my job is about, not pronouncing."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
filmPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
News
General Election
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Administrator is requ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - Commercial Vehicles - OTE £40,000

£12000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion and growth of ...

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - Sheffield - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer position with a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Leader - Plasma Processing

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Operations Leader is required to join a lea...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders