He was the Chief Scientific Adviser to H.M. Government under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and Head of the Government Office for Science from October 2000 to 31 December 2007. In that time, he raised the profile of the need for governments to act on climate change and was instrumental in creating the new £1 billion Energy Technologies Institute. In 2008 he co-authored "The Hot Topic" (Bloomsbury 2008) on this subject. He is a distinguished supporter of the British Humanist Association.
He was 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. He was a member of the National Executive, Association of University Teachers (the academics trades union), 1970–78, and president 1976-77. 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). During this time, King, together with Gabor Somorjai and Gerhard Ertl, shaped the discipline of surface science and helped to explain the underlying principles of heterogeneous catalysis. However, the 2007 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Ertl alone. In 1991, he was a recipient of the BVC Medal and Prize, awarded by the British Vacuum Council. From 2008 to 2012 he was Director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford.
King has published over 500 papers on his research in chemical physics and on science and policy, and has received numerous prizes, Fellowships and Honorary Degrees. King was knighted in 2003 and in 2009 made a Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur. Until 2012, he continued as a Director of Research in the Department of Chemistry at Cambridge University, where he retains the title of Emeritus Professor.
During his tenure as Chief Scientific Adviser he has raised public awareness for climate change and initiated several foresight studies. As Director of the Government’s Foresight Programme, he created an in-depth horizon scanning process which advised government on a wide range of long term issues, from flooding to obesity. He also chaired the government’s Global Science and Innovation Forum from its inception. King advised the government on issues including: The foot-and-mouth disease epidemic 2001; post 9/11 risks to the UK; GM foods; energy provision; and innovation and wealth creation; and he was heavily involved in the Government’s Science and Innovation Strategy 2004-2014. He suggested that scientists should honour a Hippocratic Oath for Scientists.
In his role of scientific advisor to the UK government King was outspoken on the subject of climate change, saying "I see climate change as the greatest challenges facing Britain and the World in the 21st century" and "climate change is the most severe problem we are facing today - more serious even than the threat of terrorism".
He strongly supports the work of the IPCC, saying in 2004 that the 2001 synthesis report is the best current statement on the state of play of the science of climate change, and that really does represent 1,000 scientists
King had criticised the Bush administration for what he saw as its failures in climate change policy, saying it is failing to take up the challenge of global warming.
King told The Independent newspaper in February 2007 "he agreed that organic food was no safer than chemically-treated food" and openly supported a study by the Manchester Business School that implicated organic farming practices in unfavourable CO2 comparisons with conventional chemical farming.
In an article published in The Guardian on 13 February 2009, King is quoted as saying that 'Future historians might look back on our particular recent past and see the Iraq war as the first of the conflicts of this kind - the first of the resource wars' and that this was 'certainly the view' (that the invasion was motivated by a desire to secure energy supplies) he held at the time of the invasion, along with 'quite a few people in government'.
King is a strong supporter of nuclear electricity generation, arguing that it is a safe, technically feasible solution that can help to reduce emissions from the utilities sector now, while the development of alternative low-carbon solutions is incentivised. In the transport sector, King has warned Governments that conventional oil resources are more scarce than they believe and that peak oil might approach in 5 years. Moreover, he has criticised first generation biofuels due to the effect on food prices and subsequent effect on the developing world. He strongly supports second generation biofuels, however, which are manufactured from inedible biomass such as corn stover, wood chips or straw. These biofuels are not made from food sources (see food vs fuel).
King appears in the film The Age of Stupid, which was released in February 2009, talking about Hurricane Katrina.
King spearheaded the public launch of the Global Apollo Programme, of which he is a member.
The first Times/Smith School World Forum on Enterprise and the Environment, a three-day conference in July 2009, was hailed a triumph by Sir David King after former US Vice President Al Gore, Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda, and President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives were amongst many giving rousing speeches. The event was staged to explore ways of reducing the dependence of many of the world’s economies on high-carbon fuels and promote low-carbon development in poor countries. More than 200 of the world’s leading climate experts attended with many showing that renewable technologies are available and that industry is ready to switch. Both Al Gore and Sir David chastised the governments of rich nations for failing to implement policies to facilitate rapid low-carbon development.Sir David King, Gabrielle Walker, The Hot Topic: how to tackle global warming and still keep the lights on, Bloomsbury London 2008
Oliver Inderwildi, Sir David King, 'Energy, Transport & the Environment', 2012, Springer London New York Heidelberg
David King interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 27 November 2009 (film)
Sir David King at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford
Sir David King at the Department of Chemistry, University of Cambridge
BBC's biography of Sir David King
David King's article on climate change at www.chinadialogue.net
'Profile: Professor Sir David King' by Alison Benjamin, The Guardian, 27 November 2007.
Sir David King: Building a Sustainable Future Lecture presented at the Royal Institute of British Architecture 2007 (Video)
David King interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 27 November 2009 (film)