If there were more scientists in the Cabinet, they might not swallow every word the boffins say
Follow the science. It has become a mantra for Boris Johnson and senior ministers throughout this crisis. There are variations. One of them is: ‘We are guided by the science.’ Sometimes it’s ‘the best scientific advice’.
Rather as in the Star Wars movies when the goodies constantly say ‘May the force be with you’ to bolster their own spirits and buck up those who are rocketing off into the unknown, ministers go around chanting that they are following the science.
Except for one, that is. An obscure Cabinet minister, Therese Coffey, had the gall to suggest on Tuesday that scientists are not always correct, and that when the Government has got things wrong this could be because it has received duff advice from the boffins.
All hell broke loose. No 10 instantly disowned Miss Coffey, insisting it loved its scientists, while the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, yesterday described her remarks on BBC radio as ‘unproductive’. I certainly wouldn’t choose to cross the Sahara desert with Mr Buckland if there were only one water bottle between us.
An obscure Cabinet minister, Therese Coffey, had the gall to suggest on Tuesday that scientists are not always correct, and that when the Government has got things wrong this could be because it has received duff advice from the boffins
Meanwhile, at the daily media briefing on Tuesday afternoon, Dame Angela McLean, chief science adviser at the Ministry of Defence, sounded a bit shirty. She said she and her ilk ‘have been focused on trying to give good-quality advice, completely rooted in evidence’.
I shouldn’t describe the Work and Pensions Secretary as ‘Miss Coffey’. She is Dr Coffey, having obtained a PhD in chemistry at the respected University College London. Her scientific background makes her almost unique in the Cabinet.
The only other senior minister who can lay claim to a scientific training is Business Secretary Alok Sharma, who studied applied physics with electronics. International Development Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan read maths. The other 19 members of the Cabinet studied non-scientific subjects, or nothing at all.
Now it seems to me that if anyone in the upper echelons of Government is qualified to point out that not all the scientific advice it has received has been flawless, that person is Dr Coffey. Yet the poor woman is being treated as a pariah for opening her mouth.
She has the scientific knowledge, and therefore the intellectual confidence, to enable her to point out deficiencies and inconsistencies in the advice of those the Government continues to venerate while it ‘follows the science’.
Look at the ‘quad’ of senior ministers who have been running the show with Boris Johnson during the Covid-19 crisis while Dr Coffey has been busying herself at the Department for Work and Pensions. It is a very long time since any of them last peered into a test tube
Look at the ‘quad’ of senior ministers who have been running the show with Boris Johnson during the Covid-19 crisis while Dr Coffey has been busying herself at the Department for Work and Pensions. It is a very long time since any of them last peered into a test tube.
The PM read classics at Oxford. Michael Gove studied English, also at Oxford. Dominic Raab buried his nose in law books at Oxford and Cambridge. Both Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock read politics, philosophy and economics (the ‘must-have’ degree for many aspiring modern politicians) at Oxford.
Not a single scientist among them. And not many scientists, I would wager, among the senior civil servants and ‘special advisers’ who surround and counsel them as they try to make sense of the mountains of scientific advice put before them by bodies such as Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies).
We are governed by non-scientists during a crisis in which the enemy — the coronavirus — must be defined, fought and beaten by methods devised by scientists. How well suited are the humanities graduates who rule us to lead us in this battle?
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