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
Two christmas trees ,Moonbeam (2L), Moonchester (2R) and Santa Claus outside the Etihad Stadium
footballAll the action from today's games
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas