30 October 2010

Blair and Science

Some years ago when I was working in a government department in London, the New Labour politician at its head (the Secretary of State no less) decided that he ought to meet some of the lesser mortals on his staff. A lucky few of us, no doubt perceived by our management as being of comparable character to the unarmed trusties who used to run the Mississippi state prison system, were invited to gather in a large and rather forbidding room early one autumn evening. On the tables were some glasses ungenerously filled with cheap wine and bowls of crisps to match both provided at our leader’s expense. Like many in the Cabinet at the time, our man was a Scot. The gathering was not well-attended and attempts at circulating were soon abandoned. I fell into conversation with a former colleague. The Secretary of State, one of those short men who are so graceful on the dance floor, glided up to us. “What do you do in the Department?” he asked. Unwisely, I replied “Oh, we are both scientists.” His small mouth opened and shut goldfish-like. Without a word he turned on his ample heels and slid away with an elegance which nowadays would make him a serious minor celebrity candidate for 'Strictly Come Dancing’. A few months later he quickstepped away altogether, having found a lucrative job outside government.

I was reminded of this incident by a passage in Tony Blair’s ‘A Journey’ dealing with the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001 (page 312 of the UK edition):
When I got back to Downing Street on Sunday I decided to grip the whole thing, and got my close advisers together. By some masterstroke - not mine, I hasten to add, but Richard Wilson, the Cabinet Secretary's - our chief scientific adviser, Sir David King was invited to join the inner circle. If anyone tells you that scientists are impractical boffins, refer them to David. What he told me sounded a trifle wacky, but over the weeks to come it was to be of priceless value in defeating the disease. Essentially, by means of graphs and charts he set out how the disease would spread, how we could contain it if we took the right culling measures, and how over time we would eradicate it.
The officials were extremely sceptical. So was I. How could he predict it like that, with so many unknowns? But almost faute de mieux, I followed his advice - and blow me, with uncanny, almost unnatural accuracy, the disease peaked, declined and went, almost to the week he had predicted.
 “Blow me”, indeed. Does Blair really think impractical boffinry, "for lack of something better", keeps planes in the air, invented the internet and the pill, or threatens us with WMD (ok bad example)? The answer is that he just doesn’t see his world as having much to do with science and technology, as opposed  to, say in his case, religion or law. Nor do most politicians – according to The Times ‘Eureka!’ October 2010, there are only two MPs out of 630 with science PhDs. Blair again (page 646):
The fourth speech again concerned a quiet passion of mine that was partly the result of missed opportunities at school: science. I had been a woeful student. Failed my physics, gave up on chemistry, scraped through in maths, never bothered with biology and spent the rest of my life regretting it! For some reason or other, I just couldn't grasp it. I felt a deep stupidity about it, unable to glimpse let alone see fully its principles and elements, in any shape that bestowed understanding. So my early life in regard to it passed in a slough of frustration, incomprehension and indifference.
The school was Fettes (chosen by his father as the best in Scotland – page 43) which he says had given him an exhibition (page 561). No lack of opportunity then, nor presumably was Blair deeply stupid, although Roy Jenkins supposedly said that he is a first-class politician with a second class brain. It’s just that the culture and practice of modern democratic politics, about which Blair writes penetratingly, has little, if anything, in common with that of science and technology. Scant call for measurement, analysis, objectivity, verifiable and substantiated assertion and so on, in an occupation where the central skills include the avoidance of direct questions, media management and the squaring of circles, and in which the branches of Arithmetic seem to be those studied by the Mock Turtle: Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision. Blair’s next (one sentence) paragraph:
Now I am fascinated by science and by its possibilities; in awe of how its progress is changing our world and the lives we lead.
apart from its reading like an uninspired UCAS Personal Statement, is quite unbelievable in the context of ‘A Journey’. Much more credible is the account of Blair’s meeting with Bill Gates as Leader of the Opposition some time between 1994 and 1997 (page 255-6):
David [Miliband] was smart and modern on technology. I was non compos mentis on the subject, being a genuine technophobe. He tried to tutor me before the meeting, alarmed that I would behave in a way inconsistent with the New Labour ‘we are at the cutting edge of the technological revolution’ mantra.
We are then told that he didn’t disappoint David’s expectations, and got his terminology muddled in front of Bill. Well, much good has his geekiness done David recently.

The fact is that our Secretary of State’s attitude to us that evening and Blair’s to his much more senior Chief Scientific Adviser were of a piece. (I am giving that post capitals as Blair does not – but note “Cabinet Secretary” three words earlier above.) It would be naive to think things are going to be otherwise, at least in Western democratic politics and government now. On the other hand most of China’s top leadership are qualified engineers or scientists, a factor which may well influence their awesome investment in infrastructure and education, and shape the capabilities of their armed forces. The prospects for the US and Europe’s position relative to China by say 2050 do not look too good, probably with very uncomfortable consequences. Something for other posts in due course.

Senior government scientists who have regular dealings with politicians and the high mandarinate (the sort Blair happily capitalises) are far too intelligent not to be well aware of how they are regarded and valued. Some of them, understandably, sought status compensation by treating their own staff in a rather old-fashioned and high-handed way I used to think, with predictable consequences for morale. Not that this showed up in regular personnel surveys which would reveal that a high percentage were much enthused with their work and the way it was organised. This was to the relief of the high-ups whose bonus pay might have been affected. The fact that about half the staff declined to complete the survey forms, and the disenchantment that this might imply, were ignored, of course. No better than the politicians, really.