Anyone wondering why first Michael Gove and then Boris Johnson hired Dominic Cummings will find the answer in the latter’s performance this morning before the Commons Science and Technology Committee.
On such occasions it is usual for the witness to emit, as a defensive measure, thick clouds of politico-bureaucratic smoke, so dull and stifling that only those who have mastered the official language of Westminster and Whitehall can discern what, if anything, has been said.
Cummings is not like that. He loves freedom and hates bureaucracy. He may be wrong, but he is seldom unclear. As ConHome reported in 2014, in what appears to be the first profile of him ever published, “he prefers…not to beat about the bush”.
If one were a minister trying to hack one’s way through the Whitehall jungle, while not forgetting where one is actually trying to go, one would want Cummings at one’s side.
Near the end of the session, Graham Stringer (Lab, Blackley and Broughton) remarked that about 90 per cent of scientists had voted to remain in the EU, and wondered whether this was because co-operation had become more important to them than science.
About 90 per cent of witnesses would have given us some platitudes about the necessity in science for cooperation.
Cummings instead remarked:
“scientists can cooperate globally without having to be part of the nightmarish Brussels system which has blown up so disastrously over vaccines. Just this week we’ve seen what happens when you have an anti-science, anti-entrepreneurial, anti-technology culture in Brussels, married with its appalling bureaucracy, in its insane decisions over the warnings on the AstraZeneca vaccine.”
He had begun by remarking on “the horrific Whitehall bureaucracy”, from which the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), an organisation championed by Cummings, is supposed to liberate some of our scientists.
“Extreme freedom” is more important, Cummings contended, than money. He wants ARIA to be run by “a director and four trustees”, who have “good taste in scientific ideas and in scientific researchers”.
It must not become part of the great network of committees, each with the power of veto or at least of intolerable delay, which circulate emails for months or years between each other before blocking original but unpredictable proposals and deciding to give the money to established, middle-aged scientists who already have well-funded laboratories.
A brilliant 21-year-old who might turn out to be a new Newton, Darwin or Turing is told, by the representatives of the present system: “You’re mad, of course we’re not funding you.”
Nobody could have predicted that within a short time Turing’s work would lead to computers and cracking the Enigma machine.
Cummings agreed with Aaron Bell (Con, Newcastle-under-Lyme) that only an “existential crisis” tends to bring the “extreme freedom” which ARIA needs to enjoy.
In the early stages of the Covid crisis, Cummings remarked, the Vaccine Taskforce had to be given that freedom, because the Department of Health had been a “total disaster” in such fields as procurement.
Carol Monaghan (SNP, Glasgow North West) wondered, “How do we avoid extreme freedom leading to extreme cronyism?”
Cummings replied that cronyism is rife in bureaucratic systems. He remarked that General Groves had run the Manhattan Project, handing out vast sums with no more than a handshake, and later investigation had shown the work was remarkably free of cronyism and corruption.
Katherine Fletcher (Con, South Ribble) suggested ARIA needs to have a high failure rate. Cummings replied: “Sure. You’re completely right. If it isn’t failing then it’s failing…it isn’t taking enough risks.”
He added that venture capital firms generally make their money “from a tiny number of successes”.
“Individuals have to be able to place bets,” he remarked. “Not committees.”
The Prime Minister is denounced, by his critics, as a gambler. Cummings today explained why being a gambler is safer than being a bureaucrat.