Posted by: Mahdi Ebrahimi | December 17, 2007

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.”



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