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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 November 2007, 11:04 GMT
Profile: Sir David King
Sir David King
Mum was pretty shocked, but I wanted to see how it worked - always had that childish curiosity
Sir David King on cutting up a dead guinea pig aged four

The government's chief scientific advisor, Sir David King, is to step down at the end of this year from the post he has held since 2000.

His valedictory speech at the Royal Society is to focus on the case for genetically modified food.

It is a technology he supports because he sees it as the way to feed a growing world population from over-stretched resources amid a changing climate.

And his support stands firm despite the concern from many of the general public that the technology is something to be feared.

But Sir David is not one to shy away from controversial stances.

In October, he stated that a large cull of badgers should be carried out to control bovine TB - a recommendation that appeared to contradict a previous 10-year study by the Independent Study Group.

Sir David may have made enemies of the 95% of the population who surveys say are against a cull of badgers, but his career suggests he was unlikely to be swayed from his path.

Chairman John Bourne dismissed Sir David's advice as "clearly hastily written" and "very superficial".

During the past seven years Sir David has advised the government on everything from GM foods to stem cell research, and foot-and-mouth disease to nuclear power.

Science has never been higher up the political or media agenda, and Sir David has often been in the maelstrom where science meets politics.

Petri dish of genetically modified seeds
GM foods could bring benefits, Prof King says

Perhaps his most controversial moment came in 2004 when he said climate change was a far greater threat to the world than international terrorism.

As the statement reverberated in headlines around the world, Sir David went on to berate the US for failing to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.

Friend and veteran former MP Tam Dalyell said many appreciated the scientist's stance.

"It went down jolly well with many of us, who knew that he was right. It wasn't a question of sticking his head out a little bit, it was sticking his head well above the parapet," he told BBC Radio 4's Profile programme.

Born in Durban, South Africa, in 1939, it was perhaps obvious that he would one day be a scientist. At the age of four a dead guinea pig piqued his scientific curiosity. So he cut it up.

"[I] think mum was pretty shocked, but I wanted to see how it worked - always had that childish curiosity."

Apartheid interrogation

By the time he started university, he was also developing a keen sense of justice. In the early 1960s he was writing letters to newspapers and attending anti-apartheid meetings.

But his activities soon attracted the attention of the authorities and he was called in for questioning.

Later he recalled: "I was interrogated on the 7th floor of a police building - notorious place, had been lots of alleged suicides under interrogation there, I was interrogated in fairly aggressive fashion with window open behind me, was accused of being a communist - at that time the Ministry of Justice could incarcerate communists."

Badger lovers may not like him much

Deciding to leave the country, and with a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Witwatersrand, he moved to London's Imperial College before securing a post as a lecturer at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. There he continued his interest in politics with involvement in trade unionism.

In 1974 he moved straight from being a lecturer to a professorship at Liverpool University. At the age of 34, to gain this sort of appointment was extraordinary, says Michael Bowker, who had been Sir David's first Phd student.

"Liverpool recognised at that point that they had really a star on their hands and grabbed him as quickly as they could."

Dubbed the "king of catalysis", his research on how atoms and molecules behave on metal surfaces formed part of the science underpinning catalytic converters in car exhausts.

In 1988, he was appointed 1920 Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, but his regular sojourn in the public eye really came with his appointment as the chief scientific adviser in 2000, in time for the fall out from the BSE inquiry report. He had to quickly master the field of neurological disease.

Sir David's work was crucial in communicating complicated ideas to politicians and the public, then science minister Lord Sainsbury says.

"He can master almost any subject very quickly and then also explain it in layman's language very clearly."

But he has also been criticised over his backing for nuclear power and his targets to reduce the UK's carbon emissions.

Keith Allott, head of climate change at the World Wildlife Fund, says: "There have been some concerns that some of the advice that he's been giving is actually veering on the political rather than the scientific."

He cites a "growing consensus" about the need to cut domestic emissions by 80% by the middle of the century, adding: "The government is still wedded to a 50-60% reduction and Sir David is going along with that line."

Sir David is set to remain a controversial figure but he's likely to be remembered more for climate change than his views on badgers.

Science adviser urges GM rethink
27 Nov 07 |  Science/Nature
Scientist renews climate attack
31 Mar 04 |  UK Politics
Science chief urges badger cull
22 Oct 07 |  Science/Nature


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