The letter to Mr Willetts, the universities and science minister, criticises Günther Oettinger for using the phrase four days after the tsunami that caused the meltdowns at the Japanese nuclear plant.
“I think the word is particularly well chosen. Practically everything is out of control. I cannot exclude the worst in the hours and days to come,” the former head of the German province of Baden-Württemberg said.
The 10 signatories to the letter, who include Jim Al-Khalili, professor of public engagement in science at the University of Surrey, David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor of the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, and Gerry Thomas, chair in molecular pathology at Imperial College London, say that Mr Oettinger’s words were “based on interpretation of international press reports and not on any scientific analysis”.
“Unsurprisingly, the words were reported around the globe and were cited in reports of several countries’ plans to drop nuclear energy programmes, again before a proper scientific analysis was conducted,” they write.
“This knee-jerk and overly politicised approach to communication of energy risks also undermined more considered and evidence-based efforts, including those of the UK’s chief scientific adviser.”
It says the European Commission took eight months to respond to questions posed by Sense About Science, the British public education charity, which queried its use of evidence when communicating risk.
The commission had “repeatedly refused to address the question, referring flippantly to ‘semantic details’ before refusing to discuss the matter any further”, the letter claims.
“We are deeply worried by the bizarre approach to risk communication…which has now reached such a position of obstruction and irresponsibility that we would ask you to intervene,” it adds.
“Would you establish that evidence-based and responsible risk communication is taken seriously and that the commission will adopt higher standards with respect to future public communication about energy, nuclear and otherwise?”
The European Commission declined to comment.