Doctor StrangeGove strikes again

meme by the author

Anti-expert Michael Gove got October off to an interesting start, with a quite extraordinary answer to a question from Opposition MP Hilary Benn. Mr Benn, Chair of the Select Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union, had the previous day taken evidence from Neil Hollis, Regulatory Affairs Manager at the world’s largest chemicals manufacturer, BASF. The gist of it was that registration with UK-Reach (post-Brexit chemicals regulator) will cost an estimated £1bn across the chemicals industry, bringing no tangible benefits, but making UK companies less competitive and possibly acting as a disincentive to register, thereby reducing choice on the UK market.

“There’s no positive spin on this one, I’m afraid, Chair,” Mr Hollis told the Committee. Understandably, Mr Benn chose to raise this with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Cabinet Office Minister in parliament at the earliest opportunity.

“The right hon. Gentleman is right that the chemicals sector is one of the many economic success stories of the United Kingdom,” replied Michael Gove. “It is an inevitable consequence of leaving the European Union single market and customs union and freeing ourselves from the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union that we have to have our own regulatory systems in place. They will enable us to be competitive and to take advantage of increased autonomy and independence in the future. One of the great prizes of leaving the European Union is that, when it comes to life sciences and other areas, we will be freed from the often anti-science and anti-innovation approach that the EU has had hitherto.”

Wait, what? Is this the same Michael Gove who in 2016 claimed that leaving the EU would mean less red tape and savings of £600 million a week? The same one who invited companies in December 2016 to draw up a list of EU regulations they would like to heap on the bonfire? The one who finally admitted earlier this year that leaving the EU means more not less red tape? It is important to remember too, that just as one man’s trash may be another man’s treasure, what may be costly ‘red tape’ for one vulture capitalist, is another working person’s rights. The study by think tank Open Europe, which underlay VoteLeave’s 2016 claims on this topic, was flawed and inaccurate, yet Michael Gove treated it as Gospel, despite his self-confessed aversion to experts.

“I think the people of this country have had enough of experts—” Michael Gove told an astonished Faisal Islam on Sky News in 2016, who replied “What does that even mean? This is proper Trump politics, this, isn’t it? Oxbridge Trump.”

Michael Gove laughed.

Apart from snorting them, what does Michael Gove know about chemicals anyway? He got an upper second degree in English from Oxford, failed to make it in his chosen career of a TV comedian, and finally settled on becoming a hack for Rupert Murdoch publications, before becoming an MP in 2005. (Yes, it feels as if it’s been an eternity, but it’s only been fifteen years…) He has never manifested any knowledge of, or even an interest in, science. Once upon a time he had the humility to know that he was ill-qualified to opine on the topic. He told the Royal Society in 2011:

“Ladies and gentleman, I feel a little nervous in these surroundings. I am a journalist by profession, a politician by accident and a historian in my dreams. I am, therefore, in all too many ways, poorly equipped to address an audience of the nation’s most distinguished mathematicians and scientists.”

What was particularly odd in Gove’s recent response to Mr Benn was his out-of-left-field attack on the EU’s record on life-sciences and innovation, especially as this does not concur with what the science world itself says on the matter. Besides, the Office for Life Sciences on the government’s website hasn’t been updated since 2017, nor the Life Sciences Organisation since 2018, so it doesn’t look as if this Tory Government is taking too keen an interest in the work of this sector, which is none the less producing stellar results. Macbeth McGove doth protest too much.

Horizon 2020, designed with input from scientists, became the world’s leading multilateral scientific funding programme, investing €77 billion into research and innovation in the period 2014-20. Science is increasingly a deeply collaborative and multi-disciplinary process, and through participation in EU programmes the UK was able to carve out a leading position in science and punch above its weight. Horizon 2020 was efficient; with only 5% spent on administration costs, it funded 7,500 collaborative projects and yielded a healthy return of €11 for every €1 spent. The UK coordinated more Horizon 2020 projects than any other nation and was involved in more collaborations than any other European country with the exception of Germany.

To give practical examples of what some of the Horizon 2020 projects have meant to ordinary everyday people like you and me:

  • Cure rates for British children with leukaemia have improved, thanks to the IntReAll project, a collaboration between the University of Manchester and German Researchers;
  • Residents of Aberdeen and London have benefited from “greener” buses with zero emissions, thanks to the UK’s participation in the EU’s hydrogen fuel cells projects, and
  • Jobs have been created in Merseyside and Nottinghamshire through the European Research Council, with a multi-million-pound collaboration in a materials chemistry hub between Unilever and the University of Liverpool and spin-out company Promethean Particles building the world’s largest nanoparticle manufacturing plant.

Despite these successes, since the Brexit vote, British science overall has lost some of its lustre. A 2019 report by the Royal Society found that compared to 2015, the UK’s annual share of EU research funding had fallen by half a billion Euros, there had been almost a forty per cent drop in UK applications to Horizon 2020 and there were thirty-five per cent fewer scientists coming to the UK through key schemes as the hostile environment to foreigners made it harder to attract top scientists and high potential PhD students.

Britain’s favourite particle physicist, Professor Brian Cox, tweeted in response to these sad statistics:

Various scientific institutions have implored our government to seek associate status to Horizon Europe, the €81 billion successor programme to Horizon 2020, running from 2021-27. Given the UK’s current scientific capabilities, this would be a win-win. However, as the Royal Society’s statistics show, our position is already deteriorating. If the UK is to maintain its world-leading position in science, it is essential that we have full access to EU research Framework Programmes and the funding, networks, collaborations and infrastructure they provide.

Countries that are geographically close are more likely to collaborate, over half of our collaborative papers are with EU partners and together the EU27 plus the UK produce a third of the world’s scientific publications, with only seven per cent of the global population. Any new UK scheme would be small in comparison to Horizon Europe, and it would take years to reach the same level of prestige. Science is genuinely something that needs to done at a continental, rather than individual country level. Sadly, in consequence of the current ideological rejection of anything badged ‘EU’, we risk not only being left out, but also falling so far behind that we may never recover.

Science is an EU success story AND a UK success story too. So why would Michael Gove tell such a hideous lie about it? Partly because it’s par for the course for Tory MPs to bad-mouth the EU these days. Most of them are surprisingly ignorant about it. However, they realise Brexit is harming the UK’s science industry and hope to shift the blame for their vandalisation of the sector to the EU.

The other reason is because lying is a key tactic in the Cummings-Gove political playbook. Replacing actual facts with alternative narratives; prioritising feeling and perception over evidence; focusing on ideology to the exclusion of reality. Hannah Arendt wrote that the point of propaganda was not to propagate lies, but to erode the public’s faith in the truth. Eventually people don’t know what to believe, and can more easily be manipulated by unscrupulous populists.

When Gove lies, he’s not trying to convince us of a falsehood. He’s demonstrating his power, at (or near) the top of the populist tree. He’s lying; most of us know he’s lying; he knows most of us know he’s lying —and he’s rubbing our noses in it. As long as the government’s cheerleaders remain faithful, though they be a minority, Gove knows we can’t do a damn thing about it. He doesn’t even try to be consistent anymore and can even contradict himself in the space of a single paragraph. Anti-truth Michael Gove is more dishonest and deranged by the day. Strange by nature, Gove by name. Doctor StrangeGove indeed.