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Social Mobility positions available: Only “Super-talented weirdos” need apply

The news this week that 10 Downing street was considering a major overhaul of the civil service comes as little surprise (originally reported in the Telegraph on 14th December 2019). The big surprise lay in what it might become. With Johnson thousands of miles away on holiday in sunnier climes, it seems that Dominic Cummings can carry on regardless of any democratic oversight. His vision of what officials and advisors should be has raised eyebrows.  Meanwhile, the Social Mobility Commission has woken up to the dangers to its existence that the new administration threatens. 

The Cummings and goings at No10.

The attempt to recruit staff as civil service officials and government advisor positions by Blog is certainly a departure from the usual practice to date. Indeed, a departure from the current labour law and worker’s rights. The ‘hire and fire’ culture we might expect to infiltrate our society is made clear with “I’ll bin you within weeks if you don’t fit — don’t complain later because I made it clear now”. But then it may be that Brexit means the Government ditches most rights for workers anyway. The blog itself is very entertaining but would be funnier of it had not come from the heart of our Government. The call for ‘Junior Researchers’ states that “In many aspects of government, as in the tech world and investing, brains and temperament smash experience and seniority out of the park”. Seniority may be, but experience, definitely not. Then, he piles on the irony with, “I don’t want confident public school bluffers”. Coming from someone who runs a real risk of being called precisely that, it seems the irony has eluded him. Next, the call for “Super-talented weirdos” is astounding. In needing “some true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole” he also displays his affinity with Russia by using the example of a “Chinese-Cuban free runner from a crime family hired by the KGB.” There have been many suspicions of people ‘hired by the KGB’ close to our government in the past but there has been no KGB since 1991. Thus the “Chinese-Cuban free runner” is likely to be a bit long in the tooth and well past his or her best by now. With reports of Russian business interests donating millions to the Conservative party since 2010, the irony of past parallel rumours of Soviet interference in, and plots of a coup against, the Wilson Labour administrations in the 1960s and 1970s also seems to have escaped attention. The most likely outcome is that Cummings will crash straight into the Civil Service ramparts manned by the current Cabinet Secretary, Mark Sedwill. He has a science undergraduate degree, a Master’s degree in Economics and something called ‘experience’.

Social Mobility progress?

There has been little evidence that the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) made much progress in the second half of 2019. The trauma of Brexit and a highly divisive election may have impeded its activities, but the issue will simply not go away. However, as this blog was being prepared, it seems that it has stirred a little. A tweet on 31st December announced that “Over the next few days we will set out more of the findings and proposals from our key reports.” Since then there has only been a reference to its report, ‘State of the Nation 2018-19: Social Mobility in Great Britain’ in April of last year (See also report by TEFS 30th April 2019). But much of the report would have been compiled before the new commission got going. The same is the case for its belated report ‘Elitist Britain 2019’ that was finally released by the Sutton Trust in June 2019. Its main message was nothing new in further reporting how the top jobs are acquired.

The SMC web site has had few updates since then and it seems to have been slumbering. It's Social Mobility Commission strategy 2019’ is very short on detail and despite its fine ambitions its aspiration to be “a campaigner on tackling inequality while galvanising others to work with us” seems distant. When interrogated by the Parliamentary Education Committee in June 2019, the failings of the SMC became all too apparent. The ‘car crash’ of a hearing started when the Chair of the SMC and her officials failed skidded off on the first bend by failing to define ‘Social Mobility’. (TEFS 18th June 2019 ‘Social Mobility Commission boarding up the windows.’). Since then, despite protestations, the ‘Commissioners register of business interest’ was published in November of 2019. But there have been no monthly meetings reported since May 2019 and last quarterly meeting notes are from June 2019.

The idea of replacing the SMC with a Social Justice Commission might come to the fore soon. Although it seems to be a Labour policy it actually emerged from a recommendation of the Parliamentary Education Committee itself back in May 2018 (TEFS ‘Justice for the Social Mobility Commission: A fresh start?’ 24th May 2018). It was championed by Conservative Robert Halfon who was re-elected in December.

Cummings, Genetics and ‘Social Mobility’.

The attitude of Cummings to the idea of ‘Social Mobility’ might be pivotal in sealing their fate. In his Essay on an ‘Odyssean’ Education from 2013 he defends criticism of a much longer treatise (‘Some thoughts on education and political priorities’). Therein he entangles genetics, ability and social mobility into one boiling pot. As a result, he concludes that “Most of those who now dominate discussions of issues such as ‘social mobility’ entirely ignore genetics and therefore their arguments are at best misleading and often worthless.”

However, he also makes the mistake of the SMC by not adequately defining what he means by ‘Social Mobility’ in the treatise. That is partly because it means different things to different people. TEFS explored this phenomenon in detail in ‘Social Mobility: It’s the economy, stupid’ (4th May 2018). The ‘Economist’s Tale’ and the ‘Socialist’s Tale’ seem to occupy either end of a definition spectrum. Defining ‘Social Mobility’, and the means by which it is measured, is necessary as a first step.

However, not deterred by definition boundaries, in February 2019 Cummings produced ‘Genetics, genomics, predictions & ‘the Gretzky game’ — a chance for Britain to help the world’. He concluded that “A useful heuristic is to throw ~100% of what you read from social scientists about ‘social mobility’ in the bin.” Instead, it seems he is convinced that a person’s genetic makeup is the main driver of success and most interventions would not work; such as providing disadvantaged children with books. He dismisses the argument that “Kids who can read well come from homes with lots of books so let’s give families with kids struggling to read more books” and replaces it with the “truth” that “children and parents share genes that make them good at and enjoy reading, so causation is operating completely differently to the assumptions”. There are many reasons why this is a somewhat simplistic approach to understanding our society and its many social advantage drivers. Experience of climbing out of disadvantage would be a start in understanding. Starting from a position of advantage and making assumptions is not conducive to understanding.

Cummings is correct in stressing that the science of genomics is fast-moving and complex. But dismissing politicians with “almost everything written by MPs about ‘social mobility’ is junk” is surely going too far. They are after all elected with a mandate; the rest of us are not. Yet, the science is at an early stage and scientists do not deal with ‘truth’ per se. It would be a mistake to seek to reach ‘truth’ as a conclusion. Instead, scientists deal with theories and models of how nature works based on the current best information available. Thus, there appears currently to be a connection between numerous single nucleotide polymorphisms (i.e. single variations in DNA sequences of genes at numerous loci) and human cognitive ability. But in most cases, there is little evidence to connect brain function biochemistry with the genes and their regulation. Without this causal link, some of the conclusions could be based simply upon assumptions and conjecture. This is not ‘truth’ just the best model available at this time. Also, the role of selection, neutral and stochastic effects on population genetics alongside environment and epigenetic effects is downplayed. Some of these issues were explored by TEFs last year in ‘Augar and the dark side of Robbins (7th June 2019) and are now worthy of further explanation if government policy is changing.

However, Cummings himself hits the nail on the head with “Courses such as Politics, Philosophy and Economics (and economics in general) do not train political leaders well. They encourage superficial bluffing, misplaced confidence (e.g. many graduates leave with little or no idea about fundamental issues concerning mathematical models of the economy”.

Similarly, TEFS in its review of the ‘Labour Party Conference 2018: National Education Service and a tale of Two Cultures’ concluded that there was a considerable shortfall in scientific understanding in parliament. The ‘Two Cultures’, as originally identified by Charles (C P) Snow in 1959 was originally a Rede Lecture and grew into an influential eponymous book that resonates today. Indeed, it’s our politicians that have the shortfall in their understanding of science and mathematics.

The problem resides in Westminster and Cummings might remember this or his days at Number 10 are surely numbered.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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