Cummings' focus on innovation comes at the expense of its economic benefits
Updated: Apr 6, 2020
NOW THAT THE Conservative Government has a majority of 80 in parliament, it is clear that they will be able to implement pretty much anything they want. The opposition is effectively powerless, and even a few rebellious Tory backbenchers will have little impact on their ambitions.
Boris Johnston is not a conviction politician. As a journalist he would turn his pen to whatever topic he thought would best amuse and entertain his readers. The man in Downing Street with convictions, driving their strategic goals, is his senior advisor, Dominic Cummings.
Cummings is a clever man - he has a first from Oxford - but his degree is in Ancient and Modern History, not in science or engineering. This hasn’t stopped him becoming very excited about the power of technology innovation to transform an economy.
He has shown a particular interest in the US Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), established in 1958 by President Eisenhower to "invent the future". He has written extensively about his admiration for ARPA – his WhatsApp profile is even labelled: "Get Brexit done, then ARPA".
He has been particularly inspired by a book, Dream Machine, which outlines how ARPA was responsible for funding the research which, among others, led to the internet and the personal computer. He thinks that a similar research funding programme here of around £800 million could lead to Britain once again leading the world in future innovative technology.
He clearly doesn’t understand how the British innovative economy works, or rather, why it fails to win.
Britain doesn’t lack fundamental innovation. We’ve invented world changing technologies: radar, liquid crystal displays (LCD), medical scanning (MRI, CT and ultrasound), cloned mammals, graphene and so on. Brits discovered fundamental scientific concepts such as the electron, proton and neutron, the structure of life (DNA), and the Higgs boson.
In the world of computing we invented the world’s first electronic processing machine (Colossus), the world’s first programmable computer (Manchester Baby), the packet-switching technology that enables the internet (NPL), the computing chip in all the world’s smartphones and mobile devices (ARM), and the World Wide Web (Tim Berners-Lee).
Where the UK falls down is not in our innovation and inventive capacity, but in our industrial policies. As a nation we are extraordinarily careless about retaining the economic benefits of our innovative industries. Medical scanning, LCDs, and graphene are now mostly exploited elsewhere.
British industry is largely driven by short-term financial returns, not by long-term strategic goals. It is mostly run by accountants and investment executives, not technology pioneers.
Here in Scotland we invented the CMOS imaging chip that powers the cameras in smartphones, and the audio chip that creates any sounds they make. The former is now owned by Geneva-based ST Micro and the latter by Texas-based Cirrus Logic. We invented the world’s leading computer game (Grand Theft Auto), now owned by New York-based Take Two. Edinburgh’s unicorn, Skyscanner, is now part of China’s Trip.com.
When Cambridge-based ARM was bought by Japan’s Softbank the UK technology community was stunned, how could this be allowed to happen? The world’s leading computing chip company sold just like any other object.
When US-based Pepsico wanted to buy Danone the French government stepped in, drafting a law to protect companies in "strategic industries" such as Danone from takeover. Danone makes yoghurt!
It really looks like Cummings is concentrating on the wrong end of the problem. What the UK needs most is an industrial policy which better enables our excellent UK innovation to create and retain economic benefit.