One of the fond delusions of our age is that scientists are a breed apart from ordinary mortals, white-coated custodians of a mystery, with authority to pronounce on any scientific issue,,however far removed it may be from their own field of expertise. A shining example was the status given to Sir David King, who has just retired after seven years as the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser. In 2000, when he was appointed just before the foot-and-mouth crisis, Professor King’s speciality was ‘surface chemistry’. Yet almost immediately top of his agenda was the need to fight an animal disease.
The man he called in to tackle the epidemic in March 2001 was Professor Roy Anderson, a computer modeller specialising in the epidemiology of human diseases but without any experience in veterinary matters. Shutting their ears to the pleas of the world’s leading veterinary experts on foot-and-mouth that the only effective way to stop the spread of the epidemic was vaccination, the two men flouted the law by launching their ‘pre-emptive cull’, the mass-slaughter of animals which never had any contact with the disease. As many as eight million healthy animals were unnecessarily destroyed, at a colossal social and financial cost which vaccination might have reduced to a fraction.
The next big issue to put King in the headlines was global warming, which in 2004 he described as ‘a far greater threat to the world than international terrorism’. He was quoted as claiming that global temperatures were higher than they had been for 60 million years, predicting that by the end of the 21st century, unless drastic measures were taken to curb global warming, Antarctica would be the only habitable continent left on earth.
Top of the politicians’ global warming agenda at that time, led by Blair and the EU, was the need to win ratification of the Kyoto Protocol by Russia, which would at last bring the treaty into force.