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Mathematical Sciences

Volume 818: debated on Tuesday 8 February 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure that the United Kingdom remains a world leader in the mathematical sciences.

My Lords, the EPSRC has committed £281 million to research grants for mathematical sciences between April 2015 and September 2021. To further support our world-leading mathematicians, UKRI has awarded around £104 million in additional funding over and above EPSRC’s core mathematical sciences theme budget, in line with the Government’s announcement in January 2020. Research England notionally allocated £55.2 million of mainstream quality-related research funding for mathematical sciences to higher education providers in England for the academic year 2021.

I thank the Minister for his reply and his acknowledgement of our world-leading mathematicians, but would he agree that, to be a world-leader in mathematical sciences, we also have to make greater efforts to encourage girls and young women to become mathematicians and do more to take advantage of all the talent that is available? Will the Minister indicate what steps the Government are taking to this end?

I completely agree with the noble Lord, who I know has long advocated the importance of mathematics study. I point him towards the advanced mathematics support programme, which has a specific focus to get more students participating in A-level core maths. It works with schools and colleges to raise awareness of progression to mathematics at university. As I am sure the noble Lord is aware, there is also the national network of maths hubs to help local schools improve the quality of their mathematics teaching. The most recent Programme for International Student Assessment results show that England outperformed on the OECD averages for reading, maths and science.

My Lords, pure maths is becoming ever more significant in the world of digital research. Will the Government now make mathematical science a distinct research field, no longer subordinated within engineering and the physical sciences, where it still lingers under the outdated Science and Technology Act 1965? Surely, it is time to move on.

I confess that I am not familiar with that legislation but I thank the noble and gallant Lord for his update. We have an excellent record on mathematics tuition and one of the best records in the world on advanced research papers, as shown by the number that have originated in the UK. It is an important area and we are doing well, but I am sure that we could always do better.

My Lords, leading on from the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, the leading figures in four mathematical societies are all women: the president of the London Mathematical Society, the vice-president of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society, the chair of the Centre for Mathematical Sciences and the president—and three of the four vice-presidents —of the Royal Statistical Society. As the noble Lord says, however, this is not reflected in the number of female applicants across A-level and degree level. Maths should be fun. What are the Government doing to make it fun for women and girls—and, indeed, for boys and men too?

I think boys like fun as much as girls do—sometimes even together. I am delighted to hear about all the excellent leading women who are in top-level positions. We, as the males in this world, will clearly have to do better to compete with their excellent record.

My Lords, the demise of mathematics in British universities is a direct consequence, albeit inadvertent, of the Government’s policies. The Government have allowed universities to compete for students without limit in pursuit of enhanced student appreciation, which can affect student recruitment. In order to accommodate students of lesser academic ability, the universities have relieved many of their courses of the burden of mathematics. This is damaging our prospects as a technological nation. Have the Government envisaged any means of limiting this harm?

I am afraid that I just do not recognise the picture the noble Lord is painting. The UK is a world leader in mathematical science and British mathematicians publish a large volume of highly regarded work. We have the fifth largest share of publications in the world. When looking at the top 1% of the most cited publications, UK mathematicians are responsible for the third largest share. I am sure we could always do more and better, but we have an excellent record.

My Lords, long ago I studied maths and further maths at A-level, and it was fun. Now, sadly, I struggle even to master my grandchildren’s GCSE papers, but I recall enough of my time in mathematics to understand the supreme value of pure maths. Without Newton we could not have landed on the moon. Without Turing we would not have smart- phones. Is the Minister aware of the disquiet in the maths community not only at the overall funding for mathematical sciences but at the insufficient investment in fundamental theoretical mathematics research? Will the Minister agree to consider if that really is the case?

Like the noble Lord, I did mathematics at A-level, but an almost equally long time ago and I have forgotten most of it now. He makes a very good point. We have an excellent record of investment in mathematics but I will take his remarks back to the department and see if we can do better.

My Lords, if we are really serious about raising mathematical standards in the UK, has the time not come for the Government to give greater backing to the national mathematical Olympiad for pre-university students, the winners of which would go on to the International Mathematical Olympiad but also receive money for their studies?

I thank my noble friend for her question. That sounds like an excellent event and I am sure we will want to do all we can to support it.

My Lords, the UK’s position as a leader in maths would be more certain if we addressed inequalities in education at a young age. The Government should start by launching an urgent inquiry into the way A-level results were awarded last year, when we saw stark differences in the way that schools awarded top grades. As an example, one private girls’ school in north London nearly trebled its rate of A* grades awarded, so that more than 90% of its entries were assessed as A*. Pressure on teachers from senior leaders—not at all schools, but at some—to game the system is deeply troubling and unfair. This must surely be investigated in order to restore confidence in the system.

This is obviously an important subject but we are getting slightly off the original topic, which was maths research council funding. However, I would be happy to look at that issue in more detail and come back to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, I second exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Birt, said about the importance of fundamental maths to a range of scientific disciplines. Risk analysis, neuroscience, biology—all now require an understanding of fundamental principles. I declare an interest, as my son teaches maths to biologists in the University of Edinburgh. We are, however, in severe danger of losing top-quality mathematicians because if they move to a merchant bank, their pay is so much higher than universities are now ready to offer. Will the Government look at how they maintain top-quality mathematicians in our university system to teach the fundamental maths that we need?

Again, the noble Lord raises an important subject. We clearly want to make sure that some of the top mathematicians stay in our universities to educate the next generation of young people. I will certainly take his remarks back to the Department for Education.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, says that maths should be fun for women. Can it actually be fun for anybody, even if it is very necessary for everyone?

I am sure that maths can be fun for everybody. I am disappointed that my noble friend does not think so.

My Lords, the Minister has rightly defended a reasonably good record of government funding of mathematics. I applaud that, but he is he convinced that sufficient attention is being given to biology, chemistry, physics and other scientific subjects, many of which now depend fundamentally on mathematics being inherent in their teaching?

I will need to refer to the Department for Education for the details of how it supports these other vital subjects in its teaching programmes, but I agree with the thrust of the noble Lord’s question.