Cometh the hour, cometh the British boffin

Geeks-in-chief: Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty (left) and Chancellor Rishi Sunak (right).

Should we put the boffins in charge? As the emergency spreads, brainboxes such as Chris Whitty, the medical voice of calm, and Rishi Sunak, the Star Wars-loving chancellor, are on the rise.

In scary times, we need cool heads. With panic-buying in the shopping aisles and panic-selling on the stock markets, the atmosphere right now is frenzied. Who can cut through the fear, rumours, and misinformation – and tell us exactly what we need to do?

Step forward, Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer.

This mild-mannered doctor and epidemiologist has been thrust into the limelight by the coronavirus epidemic. His clear, measured, and informed answers to questions about quarantines, vaccines, and infection rates have turned him into the hero of the hour.

“He’s exactly the man we need,” says professor of infectious diseases, David Mabey. “An absolutely extraordinary, brilliant man.”

Modern politics is all about slogans and sharp suits, and there is something refreshingly old-fashioned and nerdy about Professor Whitty.

He fits the classic stereotype of the British boffin. They love knowledge for its own sake and don’t care about being popular or successful. As well as being England’s top doctor, Whitty studied Economics, Law, and Business – all in his spare time.

But it’s not easy being a nerd. Teased at school and ostracised for being different, boffins avoid public attention, working hard in backrooms and laboratories. But that doesn’t mean their work isn’t important. Francis Spufford has written a book on the subject and argues these obsessive, curious minds built our world.

In World War Two, they designed radar and broke German encryption. They are the masterminds behind space rockets, aeroplanes, computers, and the Human Genome Project. Our world, Spufford insists, “depends secretly on boffins”.

Some say: maybe they should be in charge? We already have a self-confessed nerd as chancellor, so maybe Chris Whitty could step into Boris Johnson’s shoes? Experts tell us the truth, whereas politicians only tell us what we want to hear.

But that is not always popular. Former minister Michael Gove famously said, “People have had enough of experts”, and the popularity of Trump, Nigel Farage, and Brexit was a backlash to know-it-alls telling voters what to think.

So, should we put the boffins in charge?

Experts strike back

Of course, get Whitty into Number 10. The coronavirus epidemic is far too dangerous to leave to politicians. In the US, Trump is tweeting false information about the virus. In China, President Xi’s government covered up the outbreak. Boffins aren’t interested in being popular or wielding power. They are experts in finding solutions to problems, and that is absolutely what we need right now.

Not so fast. There is a big difference between giving advice and taking decisions. Boffins are specialists, experts in their field. Politicians should listen to their advice, but they have to consider a much bigger picture. Yes, it’s a problem when leaders only tell us what we want to hear. But a technocratic government of boffins wouldn’t care about our opinions at all. And that could be very dangerous.

You Decide

  1. Should we make Professor Chris Whitty prime minister? If not, why not?
  2. Is it more important to be popular or to be right?

Activities

  1. We are at war with the coronavirus and you are the top expert. It’s a huge responsibility. Draw up a map or a plan to show Boris Johnson what he needs to do to stop the virus.
  2. Ada Lovelace was the original British boffin. But what is she famous for? Research her life and work, and write a couple of paragraphs explaining her importance to how we live today.

Some People Say...

“Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.”

Bill Gates, US software developer and founder of Microsoft

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The coronavirus outbreak shows us how important scientific knowledge is to modern society and politics. We need experts not only to collect information about the virus, but also to interpret it correctly. Their work is enormously important, even if it goes on behind the scenes and without public recognition. Politicians need to take their advice seriously.
What do we not know?
When politicians make decisions, they take advice from many different types of expert. They will consult doctors and epidemiologists, but also economists, the police, and political advisers. In the current situation, it’s unclear what is the best advice coming from experts in different countries, for example on lock-downs, closing schools, stopping large-scale events. In the UK, there has been contradictory advice from the NHS and Public Health England (the government’s agency for protecting and improving the nation’s health).

Word Watch

Frenzied
Anxious and panic-stricken.
Epidemiologist
Expert in the pattern and spread of infectious disease.
Boffin
A scientific researcher or engineer. Highly intelligent but eccentric, with unusual interests.
Ostracised
To be excluded from a social group.
Francis Spufford
English author of Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin.
Radar
Robert Watson-Watt led a team to develop technology for detecting enemy aircraft.
Encryption
Mathematicians, including Alan Turning, worked secretly to decode German military communication.
Human Genome Project
An international research project to map human genes, completed in 2003.
Chancellor
Chancellor of the Exchequer, “Dishy” Rishi Sunak is a huge Star Wars fan.
Technocratic
A technocracy is a government of technical experts, instead of elected representatives (democracy).

Subjects

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