Dominic Cummings wants to turn the UK into the ‘home of science’ – but ignored all the scientists about lockdown

The whole way the British state does science is broken, Dominic Cummings told the Science and Technology Committee. He did, of course, have the chance to fix it not that long ago

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Thursday 18 March 2021 09:15
Dominic Cummings says Department of Health was ‘smoking ruin’ at start of Covid crisis

What people tend to forget about Dominic Cummings is that he is, first and foremost, a scientist.

People tend to forget this because he has no qualifications beyond a BA in history and has never done so much as an hour’s paid work in any kind of science-based job – but that is because the system conditions people to fail. If people read more books on management theory by American self-help gurus they would understand, but sadly they don’t.

Dominic Cummings loves science, and he has now officially re-emerged from his Islington- and/or Barnard Castle-based bunker to tell the Science and Technology Committee exactly how much he loves it. If anything, he loves science more than Brexit. In fact, Brexit only had to happen to make science better. To make the UK the home for science.

Another reason people tend to forget that Dominic Cummings is a scientist is because there are no actual scientists anywhere in the UK who think Brexit is anything other than the most damaging thing that’s ever happened to their industry.

If you speak to some actual scientists, ones who, say, run research groups at Oxford University, or who are pioneering new technologies at the Cambridge Nanoscience centre, as I like to on a regular basis, they mainly tell you about massive funding cuts, the vanishing of EU money that hasn’t been replaced, and how they can’t recruit anyone to join their research groups anymore.

(Full disclosure. I have made this point in copy once before, in 2018. It is technically no longer accurate, as all three of the scientists at Oxford University I regularly speak to have all now left to work abroad, entirely because of Brexit. Really should get that blog amended, come to think of it.)

No questions about Covid and the non-response to it today. That, apparently, will come later. Today’s evidence was more of an idea shower, specifically about the £800m science and innovation project Dominic Cummings set up before orchestrating a thermonuclear row in Downing Street that allowed him, he briefly explained, to quit on the exact day he was going to anyway.

Read more:

This was just some wise old scientific geniuses, sitting back and shooting the atomic breeze. Think of it as like the Million Dollar Quartet but for science, and with Perkins, Cash, Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis replaced by Dominic Cummings, Greg Clark, Dawn Butler and Rebecca Long-Bailey.

All Dominic Cummings ever really wanted to achieve, he explained, and the reason we had to have Brexit for absolutely no reason, the reason he had to tell all those wild lies about Turkey joining the EU and so on, was so that the government would build its own science dream factory. Its own Darpa (as in the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency), its own Manhattan Project.

And now, kind of, it has. There’s been an £800m commitment, possibly in 2024, to open the Advanced Research & Invention Agency, or Aria, as it will, if it ever happens, be known. 

These guys, these geniuses, they will just get on with things, you know, left to their own devices, not just solving problems but finding problems that didn’t exist before and solving them, too. Why does the bread always land butter-side down? Oh hang on, we’ve accidentally invented the internet. That kind of thing.

And it’s not just about coming up with big ideas, either, Cummings explained. It’s also about getting scientists into governmental decision-making processes.

“2020 was proof that if you don’t have people with scientific backgrounds [in government], who are able to think quantitatively and rationally, then you will have disastrous outcomes,” he explained, and given that the outcomes were indeed disastrous, and the people doing the thinking were mainly him, armed with his BA in history and absolutely nothing more, he was simultaneously completely in the right and the wrong. Schrodinger’s cock, if you will.

Also, of course, if it turns out some of the genius brains you’ve brought into Downing Street to do the blue sky thinking for you also turn out to spend their evenings providing racist and misogynistic social commentary in various weird Facebook groups and you have to sack them again, well, c’est la vie. Fail again. Fail better.

The whole way the British state does science is broken, Cummings explained. He explained it by bringing with him a piece of paper containing a small circle inside a big circle, which he then held up to explain how one circle was bigger than the other, in much the same way as the cows in the field are significantly larger than the toy ones in Father Ted’s static caravan.

If you couldn’t see the big circle or the small circle (perhaps because you were too far away), he did promise he would put it on his blog. I write these words five hours after he made that promise and it’s not on the blog just yet but, oh well, I’m sure if you check again tomorrow it’ll have been there since Monday.

Things, Cummings made clear, have to change. If a young Isaac Newton or a Charles Darwin were around today, with their civilisation-reshaping ideas, they would almost certainly just be ignored.

Read more:

This can’t possibly be true, can it? Oh, actually, yes it can. Scientists getting ignored is very much how things work in Britain today. A scientist can turn up to a scheduled meeting in 10 Downing Street and alright, they might not be coming out with anything epoch shifting like, “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”, they might just be screaming, “YOU NEED TO DO A LOCKDOWN NOW!” and, as things stand, that scientist will receive absolutely no backing at all.

These, we must presume, are among the problems the Dominic Cummings Genius Academy will look at. How, for example, can the machinery of government be reorganised, so that the guy who is obsessed with reorganising the machinery of government can just stop reorganising things for a minute and listen to the scientists who are pointing at him and shouting, “IF YOU DON’T DO THIS THERE’LL BE THOUSANDS DEAD! DO IT NOW! DO IT NOW!”

How, for example, can it be that the guy who lay his broken country down upon the altar of science is the very same guy who’s running things in 10 Downing Street in the middle of a pandemic when all the scientific advice gets ignored? How does that work? Stir fry that little mystery in your £800m think wok and see what comes out.

Still, not one for today, that, sadly. That’s more of a Covidy question. That can wait till next time. In the meantime, maybe there’ll be a blog on it. Or maybe, you know, that particular bit of science is another one that’s just best left ignored.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments