Friday, May 28, 2010

Even really clever people can be stupid

I'm a big admirer of James Dyson - a man who carries on a long and proud British tradition for invention and innovation - but his comment piece in today's Telegraph demonstrates that even really clever people are incapable of thinking things through sometimes.

Dyson makes the now traditional call for Britain to lead the world in science and technology. I say "traditional" because it's been going on ever since Harold Wilson bragged about the "white heat of technology" and promptly started the systematic destruction of our arms industry which was in the fore front of that "white heat". As Dyson asks ....

"Why is it that only in war will governments recognise the contribution of science and technology?"

Dyson is talking about the failure of the Air Ministry to recognise the potential of Frank Whittle's jet engine during peace time, but Dyson ignores the fact that the Air Ministry is not "government". Their failure to back development of such a revolutionary idea was primarily due to two things - the first being the fact that the Air Ministry was run by men rooted in First World War ideas and the second being government cuts to defence budgets and the policy of "appeasement".

But that's not my main complaint about Dyson's comments. What really annoys me is that Dyson seems to think that coming up with ideas is enough in its own right. It isn't.

My point is this. Although Whittle's idea was ignored for a decade, when Britain finally did decide to back the jet engine it had the engineering know how to develop it and the industrial base to manufacture it. Even though we started serious work on producing a jet fighter long after the Germans had the RAF still managed to have their first operational jet fighter in service around the same time as the Luftwaffe.

Dyson goes on to say that the new government must encourage new ideas in science and technology. My response is to ask why? I'm sure he would think I were mad for asking this - and I suspect he is not alone, but think about it. Where are Dyson vacuum cleaners made? Not in Britain.

Coming up with ideas is not enough if it is other countries that take advantage of those ideas. Dyson demands that we learn the lesson of Frank Whittle's jet engine - but he hasn't learned it himself. For us to take advantage of those ideas we need to have people who can turn an idea into a practical concept and then we need factories and workers to manufacture those goods.

The fact that Dyson chooses to make his products in some country other than Britain demonstrates that we are not in a position to do that. He does this because it is cheaper to employ people wherever it is he makes his vacuum cleaners these days and because they are able to provide him with the labour he needs to do repetitive manufacturing work in his factories.

The truth is that we can not all be great inventors, precision engineers and research scientists. A nation needs to get the balance right. Of course it needs to provide the environment and facilities in which technical innovation can flourish, but it also needs to provide an education system that finds the brightest and the best and enables them to rise to the top.

This is done through a process called selection and a system known as "elitism" - but both of these things are abhorred in modern social liberal Britain where equality of outcome is considered more important than equality of opportunity. The point to selection is that you discover at an early age who has the most potential and the point of elitism is that you make sure those people fulfil their potential.

But even then that isn't enough. What is the point of coming up with brilliant inventions when Britain just can not compete with those foreign countries where the labour pool is massive, the wages are cheap and the working conditions are less ..... regulated. That means that we can not have the factories and plants filled with workers producing the goods we develop and that is why Dyson has his factories somewhere else.

That gives us a choice. Either we change our welfare system and industrial regulation so that we can compete with those foreign workers in developing nations - employing children, slave labour wages, dangerous working conditions, 15 hour days with no breaks and so on - or we do something to protect our industry at the borders.

I know which I prefer.

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