Scientific adviser aims parting shot at Labour

November 30, 2007

Sir David King, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, has said the Government still has much to do to if it is to put current scientific knowledge at the heart of its decision-making, writes Zoe Corbyn.

The longest-serving adviser on science and technology to the Prime Minister since the position was created by Winston Churchill is to leave at the end of the year after seven years of service. He will take up a new post at Oxford University as director of the newly formed Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, it was announced this week.

Reflecting on his time in office, Sir David told The Times Higher that the Government could be "much better" at using scientific advice.

"The Government is a vast organisation (and) there is not a good history of using current scientific knowledge in decision-making," he said. "It has got much better (compared with ten years ago), but it is still that enormous tanker on the ocean. We are beginning to turn it, but there is still a long way to go."

Sir David, 68, said he would have "withdrawal symptoms" at leaving a job he had enjoyed immensely. "It is the most challenging things I have ever done."

He said that putting climate change at the top of the political agenda was one of his biggest achievements. In his 2004 statement, made in a tense climate after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York, Sir David said that climate change was a far greater threat to the world than terrorism, resulting in him being widely credited with raising awareness of the problem globally.

This week he said: "I would now rephrase it to: 'Climate change is now the biggest challenge our civilisation has ever had to face up to collectively ...' In 12,000 years of civilisation I don't think we have had a bigger problem."

Raising the profile of science in Government was another significant personal achievement, Sir David said. He said that his decision to revamp the science horizon-scanning "Foresight programme" in 2001 was creating dividends in terms of flagging up risks and opportunities in the future.

He said that he was also proud of having pushed to get chief scientific advisers in each Government department, although he voiced his frustration at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's failure to follow through. He said the most difficult moments were the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001, preparing for bird flu and the battle over how to manage TB in cattle.

Sir David said that the UK should be embracing both genetically modified crops and nuclear power. "We need a third green revolution ... I certainly don't think we are going to manage to feed 9.5 billion people on a planet that is suffering from climate change by the mid-century without GM technology."

The new school Sir David will help establish is to look at how the private sector and the Government can solve environmental problems. In addition to his new post, he will continue his chemical physics research at Cambridge University.

Sir David will be succeeded as Chief Scientific Adviser by John Beddington, a professor of applied population biology at Imperial College London.

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