David King

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David King

Sir David King is a former UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser. He was appointed permanent special representative for climate change to the foreign secretary, with effect from 1 October 2013. The role of a special representative is 'to use their expertise to develop a greater coherent effort in making sure that the FCO works closely and effectively with foreign powers'.

Background

Sir David King is the Director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford, and a senior scientific adviser to the financial services giant UBS. He was the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the Office of Science and Technology from October 2000 to December 2007.

Born in South Africa in 1939, and after an early career at the University of Witwatersrand, Imperial College and the University of East Anglia, King became the Brunner Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Liverpool in 1974.

In 1988 he was appointed 1920 Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Cambridge and subsequently became Master of Downing College (1995-2000), and Head of the University Chemistry Department (1993-2000). He retains his position at Cambridge as 1920 Professor of Chemistry.[1]

King was knighted in 2003 for his work in science, and received the award of "Officier dans l'ordre national de la Légion d'Honneur" from the French President in 2009 for his work on climate change and on negotiating the international agreement to build the world's largest technology project, the ITER fusion reactor. [2]

Questioning fracking

FrackWell.png This article is part of the Spinwatch Fracking Portal and project

In September 2013 Sir David King spoke out against UK Prime Minister's David Cameron's all-out push to develop gas from unconventional sources, warning that it could have 'enormous environmental consequences'. Fracking, he also said, 'won't be a game-changer in the UK' as it had been in the US. [3]

From sceptic to proponent of nuclear power

King was a trusted adviser to Tony Blair and one of the key people who persuaded him of the need of a nuclear revival. King's enthusiasm for nuclear led Guardian columnist George Monbiot to write that he feared that "the government's chief scientist is mutating into its chief spin doctor".[4]

Media reports often suggest that King's conversion to nuclear power was made only as the evidence on climate change accumulated. For example, the Guardian reported in October 2005 that "The government's chief scientific adviser has sent his clearest signal that Britain will need to revive its nuclear power industry in the face of a looming energy crisis and the threat of global warming ... Prof King, one of Tony Blair's most trusted advisers, said the public debate on nuclear power needed to focus on the environmental benefits. "It's important we do take the public with us on the environmental debate. That is why I'm trying to sell it - it's precisely because of the emissions."

Other media have reported how King previously opposed nuclear power but warmed to it as the science of climate change has solidified. [5] Yet King has been calling for new nuclear power consistently since 2002.[6] Even before that he was a strong advocate of nuclear power.

Nuclear industry links

From 2001 onwards King spoke consistently in favour of nuclear fusion and fission. In 2001, he was the Chairman of a meeting of Fusion Fast Track Experts that recommended that 'The ITER (an experimental fusion reactor) project is the essential step towards energy production on a fast track'. The subsequent report was known as the King report.[7] King hopes that nuclear fusion will be used in the next 35 years in the UK. [8]

Giving evidence before the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee in November 2005,[9] King stated that when the Government published its Energy White Paper in 2003:

I was arguing that we needed every tool in the bag to tackle climate change, including nuclear.

He added:

There are new fission power stations available that are efficient, are relatively much safer and produce less waste per unit of energy produced. The pebble-bed I believe is the most attractive of the three and a half to four generation nuclear fission power stations under development I think it is a marvellous project. (The pebble-bed reactor is being developed in South Africa by the South African utility Eskom, the South African Industrial Development Corporation and BNFL).[10]

40 per cent nuclear

In March 2006, The Financial Times reported how King believed that 40 per cent of Britain's electricity should come from nuclear generation - twice its current contribution.[11]

Nuclear is safest form of power

In March 2011, shortly after the Fukushima disaster, King mounted a robust defence of the safety of nuclear power, claiming even that 'hydroelectricity has caused more fatalities'. He argued that 'stepping on to a transatlantic flight will expose a person to more radiation than walking around the Fukushima nuclear power station in Japan – even in its current state of near-meltdown'. [12]

Speaking at a launch of a new report from the Oxford University's Smith School of Enterprise, which showed that the UK should reform its nuclear industry to recycle spent fuel waste into new usable fuel for the new generation of reactors, King described nuclear power as a 'massive economic opportunity'.[12]

Nuclear conference circuit

Sir David has also not been shy of speaking at nuclear conventions, such as the inaugural conference of the World Nuclear University in September 2003. The aim of the University is the "safe and increasing use of nuclear power as the one proven technology able to produce clean energy on a large global scale". Other speakers included James Lovelock; John Ritch, the Director General, World Nuclear Association and Hugh Collum, the Chairman of BNFL. [13] During his speech King said:

From a young scientist's point of view, the message to get across is that nuclear energy continues to offer exciting and new challenges, with a strong potential to provide a path forward for our future energy problems and for the sustainability of our global low-carbon economies. It is an industry with a vibrant future - that's the message to get across, and let me also say a critically important future. [13]

In May 2005 King was 'Guest-of-honour and Keynote Speaker' at the British Nuclear Energy Society's 58th Annual Dinner. [14] A year later, in May 2006, King was due to speak at the Inaugural Nuclear Industry Forum of the right-wing think tank the Adam Smith Institute. The supporting association for the event was the Nuclear Industry Association.[15]

Pro-GM lobbying

King has taken every opportunity to promote genetically modified (GM) crops. Notoriously, during an interview on BBC Radio 4's Today programme in 2007, King cited as a clear example of a GM success a so-called 'push-pull' project designed to manage pests and boost crop yields in Kenya. The project was successful. As King said, it boosted yield by 40-50 per cent. However, the project used sustainable agriculture techniques involving companion planting and did not involve GM. King's misleading claim was described by a spokesperson for the government's Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills as an "honest mistake".[16]

He used his valedictory speech at the Royal Society to focus on the case for genetically modified food. But the editor of The Lancet, Dr Richard Horton, said Sir David took his faith in science into "the realms of totalitarian paranoia" and accused him of "letting off blasts of hot and sometimes rancid air". In his online blog, Horton said:

If he lost the debate on GM, it was because his arguments failed to convince people. King seems biased and even antidemocratic. 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.[17]

King also claimed to a Commons Select Committee that Britain's failure to embrace GM crops had cost the economy up to £4 billion but when subsequently pressed, it emerged that this was mere speculation on King's part, leading Dr Brian John of GM Free Cymru to accuse King of plucking the figure "from the air".[18]

Commenting on King's departure from his post as chief scientific officer, the Daily Mail said:

Critics of Sir David suggest he has become "demob happy" following his decision to stand down. Since the announcement, he has taken a more outspoken line on controversial issues such as GM...[19]

Another, and perhaps the most extreme, example of King employing pro-GM hyperbole was his fronting of BBC Radio 4's Street Science programme on GM crops, broadcast on 3 December 2008, in which he made a series of claims about GM crops which were subsequently shown to be completely false – see transcript here and Peter Melchett's critical commentary, "Who can we trust on GM crops?", published in The Guardian on 9 December 2008.[20]

In January 2010 King made another false claim, leading to a Farmers Weekly report that began:

Many human lives have been lost due to the reluctance of some countries to accept genetically modified crops, former government chief scientific adviser, Sir David King has claimed.
Addressing the annual City Food Lecture in London's Guildhall this week, Sir David cited the example of flood-resistant rice which had taken over five years to develop using conventional breeding techniques, when it could have been done in two using biotechnology.

But Peter Melchett of the Soil Association pointed out back in December 2008, after King's first round of misleading statements about the rice in Street Science, that the non-appearance of a GM version of the flood-resistant rice was nothing to do with countries' "reluctance" to accept GMOs and everything to do with the fact that the scientists tried, but failed, to produce a GM version. In the end the scientists used marker assisted selection (MAS), normal breeding informed by knowledge of the genome and supported by environmentalists and organic organisations.[21]

Revolving Door

  • Advisor, UBS AG, April 2008. Approved by ACOBA "subject to the condition that, for 12 months from his last day of service, he should not be personally involved in lobbying UK Government Ministers or officials on behalf of his employer or its clients."[22]

Resources on King and GM

Affiliations

References

  1. Council for Science and Technology Biography of David King, As retrieved from the Internet Archive, snapshot dated 28 December 2007, accessed 15 August 2013
  2. Sir David King warns against "conspiracy of hope" ahead of RSC nuclear debate, RSC press release, dated 04 March 2013
  3. Fiona Harvey Sir David King warns against fracking, The Guardian, 16 September 2013
  4. George Monbiot, "Our Own Nuclear Salesman", The Guardian, October 25, 2005.
  5. Mark Henderson and Helen Rumbelow, Plans to go nuclear cut no ice with old enemies, The Times, November 22, 2005, accessed 20 Jan 2010
  6. Five years to decide on nuclear says Government advisor, NIA Industry Link, Issue 6 - October/November 2004, Retrieved from the Internet Archive, snapshot taken 2 November 2004, acc 15 August 2013
  7. Conclusions of the Fusion Fast Track Experts Meeting held on 27 November 2001 on the initiative of Mr. De Donnea, President of the Research Council and [ec.europa.eu/research/energy/pdf/kingreport_en.pdf‎ Conclusions of the Fusion Fast Track Experts Meeting], acc 15 August 2013
  8. Press release, University of Bath, link no longer works, not available on the Internet Archive
  9. Uncorrected transcript of King's evidence to Environmental Audit Committee, November 17, 2005, accessed February 2006.
  10. Press release on World Nuclear Association website, March 10, 2005. Retrieved from the Internet archive, snapshot taken April 10, 2006, acc 15 August 2013
  11. Thomas Catan, "Science Chief Seeks Nuclear Power Increase", The Financial Times, March 27, 2006.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Fiona Harvey, Nuclear is the safest form of power, says top UK scientist, theguardian.com, 29 March 2011 15.57 BST
  13. 13.0 13.1 The Inaugural Ceremony of the World Nuclear University Part Two, World Nuclear University, acc 15 August 2013
  14. BNES Branches, British Nuclear Energy Society website. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, snapshot captured as at 5 September 2005, acc 16 August 2013
  15. The Adam Smith Institute’s Inaugural Nuclear Industry Forum Overview 9th & 10th May 2006 The Jumeirah Carlton Tower, London Marketforce. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, snapshot taken February 2006, acc 15 August 2013
  16. Sean Poulter, "Scientist who claimed GM crops could solve Third World hunger admits he got it wrong", Daily Mail, 18 December 2007, accessed January 2009.
  17. Cited in Sean Poulter, "Scientist who claimed GM crops could solve Third World hunger admits he got it wrong", Daily Mail, 18 December 2007, accessed January 2009.
  18. John Vidal,Eco Soundings, The Guardian, 9 January 2008, accessed February 2009.
  19. Sean Poulter, "Scientist who claimed GM crops could solve Third World hunger admits he got it wrong", Daily Mail, 18 December 2007, accessed January 2009.
  20. Peter Melchett, Who can we trust on GM crops?, The Guardian, 9 December 2008, accessed February 2009.
  21. Peter Melchett, Who can we trust on GM food?, The Guardian, 9 December 2008, accessed 20 Jan 2010
  22. Tenth Report 2008-2009 Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, accessed 25 November 2014