Maths deserves to be included in the name of the Science and Technology Committee
Maths matters. Even its most pure parts have a habit of throwing up answers to some of our most pressing practical questions.
At the core of parliament’s purpose is representation.
And yet maths does not currently get the recognition and representation it deserves in Westminster.
There’s a lot of talk about STEM subjects these days. That’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths. All will be vital to the UK’s recovery from the Covid pandemic. In fact, all these subjects have underpinned the nation’s response to the virus. Whether that’s been the science behind developing vaccines or the mathematical modelling necessary to predict the spread of the disease and how to distribute those vital medicines.
And yet, in Parliament, the Select Committees charged with overseeing these sectors and holding the government to its promises for funding are only half titled. Both the House of Commons and the House of Lords have a Science and Technology Committee. Where is the mention of maths?
Maths has provided the bedrock on which our modern society is built
It may seem a minor issue, a point of pedantry. But it matters because maths matters.
To boil it down to numbers – it is maths we’re talking about after all – mathematical sciences contribute over £200 billion to the UK economy at the last estimate, that’s around 10% of GDP.
But it contributes so much more than that. Maths has provided the bedrock on which our modern society is built. Think of the encryptions that keep credit cards and the contents of smartphones safe. And it’ll provide the great technological innovations of the future. Already quantum computers – able to handle calculations far more advanced than current chips can cope with and offering a whole new level of computing power – are tantalisingly close to realisation.
Maths matters. Even its most pure parts have a habit of throwing up answers to some of our most pressing practical questions. For example, Alan Turing was working on the Riemann Hypothesis in the 1930s, a knotty problem involving prime numbers with no obvious real world application. But when it came to deciphering the Enigma code in World War Two that work was fundamental and many soldiers, seamen and civilians owed their life to it.
Mathematics is a whole with pure and applied intertwined. Which is why it was disappointing that Leicester University decided to close its pure maths group earlier this year. That led to the formation, by the London Mathematical Society and others, of the Protect Pure Maths campaign. We support its aims: to promote all maths, protect pure maths research and prevent any maths departments from closing.
The work going on in the maths departments at our universities around the UK, including at the Isaac Newton Institute that Ulrike will lead from October, will provide answers to questions that, so far, we haven’t even thought to ask.
Government does understand the importance of maths. They’ve announced £300 million of additional funding for the subject. We hope that the money is used to support all branches of mathematics and that it will be provided in a sustainable way, to pay for students to complete courses over a number of years creating a pipeline of mathematical excellence.
The ask is small: changing the name of the Science and Technology committees in parliament to include maths. But the message it would send - that parliament and politicians recognise the importance of maths and its contribution to UK society – would be clear. And the potential gains from continued excellence in maths will be huge.
Christian Wakeford is the Conservative MP for Bury South. Professor Ulrike Tillmann is Director Designate of the Isaac Newton Institute.
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