If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



Sir David King

Cambridge chemist is reactive and proactive as chief scientific adviser to British government

December 6, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 49


Sir David A. King was thrown into the deep end of science policy soon after he became chief scientific adviser and head of the U.K.'s Office of Science & Technology (OST) in October 2000.

Many people urged the U.K. government to adopt an emergency vaccination policy to stop the spread of the disease. But King, who chaired the government's Foot & Mouth Disease Science Panel, proposed a policy of rapid culling at locations where outbreaks were detected. By October, about 7 million cattle and sheep in the country had been slaughtered.

"I was not prepared for the foot-and-mouth disaster," King says. "It was a steep learning curve for me. The epidemic was growing exponentially day by day before I became involved. After that, I was reporting to the prime minister [Tony Blair] on a daily basis. I assembled a team of experienced scientists, and we put forward a proposal to bring the disease under control. The prime minister implemented the proposal, and within days, the epidemic turned into an exponential decay curve. I think it is fair to say that the science team I led played a decisive role in bringing that epidemic under control."

King says his response to the crisis is an example of his reactive role as chief scientific adviser. "My time is divided equally between being reactive and proactive," he says. "In my proactive mode, my greatest achievement has been raising the profile of science in government. When I took this job, the science budget for the research councils was just under 2 billion pounds [$3.7 billion] per annum."

King points out that his government's science budget is currently almost $4.5 billion. Next year it will be $5.2 billion, and for the following three years it will be more than $6.1 billion per year. "These increases represent the biggest hike in a science budget for 100 years," he says.

OST is responsible for allocating the U.K.'s science budget to the nation's seven research councils. It also has responsibility across departments for developing and coordinating government policy, both nationally and internationally, on science, engineering, medicine, and technology.

"I work with the prime minister to see that we raise the level of policy advice throughout government departments and ensure that it is based on the best science available," King notes. "I've also been appointing chief scientific advisers into each government department. I meet [with] them regularly, and they report to their own secretaries of state.

"I have a license to interfere," he continues. "But although I'm personally responsible to the prime minister for science and technology across all aspects of government, my advice is politically independent. I'm a member of the civil service, not a member of the government."

King stresses the proactive role that OST plays in scanning the horizon for his government. "Virtually all of the subject matter for horizon scanning lies in the scientific arena," he observes.

Horizon scanning and science come together in the U.K.'s Foresight program, which examines developments in science and technology that address future challenges. The latest Foresight program was launched in April 2002.

"Since I came in, we transformed the Foresight program radically," King says. "The new program aims to use the country's great strength in science and technology to get ahead of the game in terms of both opportunities and risks. For example, we ran a program on cognitive systems that explored opportunities for technology development that could emerge by linking brain science and computing. We also ran a program on flood and coastal defense risks for the U.K. specifically arising from global warming issues."

King is notably vocal, and often controversially so, on global warming and climate change. Earlier this year, he wrote: "In my view, climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today--more serious even than the threat of terrorism" [Science, 303, 176 (2004)]. His views caused a worldwide furor that still resonates.

"Climate change and energy are two sides of the same coin," he says. "Facing up to what is going to be the biggest transformation in the world's biggest industry--the energy industry--is the biggest challenge we face."

He believes that Britain and the rest of the world must radically reduce the amount of greenhouse gases produced--mainly, carbon dioxide generated through the use of fossil fuels. There is no viable alternative, he adds.

King notes that Blair is going to lead on two issues--Africa and climate change--during his G8 presidency next year. The G8 comprises the heads of state or government of the eight major industrial democracies.

"I've been traveling to China, India, Korea, Russia, and other countries to let them know what we plan to do with regard to climate change and what we would like to see happening," he says. "In Britain, we've already got beyond our Kyoto commitments. Our greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 14.5% between 1990 and 2002. In the same period, our economy grew by 36%, so we know we can decouple economic growth from emissions."

King retains his position at Cambridge University as a professor of physical chemistry. He usually goes back to Cambridge every Thursday night, spending Friday and Saturday with his research group.

"We are currently working on the design of new catalysts for car exhaust systems from first principles," King says. "Since I became chief scientific adviser, we have published 94 papers. We're probably as active as, if not more so than, we have been for several decades."



This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.