No 10 ‘fails to deliver’ £300 million pledged to maths research

High-profile pledge to spend £60 million a year on maths research has not been fulfilled, MPs hear

June 15, 2022
Making mistakes and wrong answer concept. Hand wiping math formula off blackboard in classroom at school. Student or teacher correcting incorrect calculation on chalkboard.
Source: iStock

The UK government has failed to honour a promise to invest an extra £300 million in advanced maths research, the head of Britain’s leading funding body has revealed.

In a hearing of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on 15 June, Dame Ottoline Leyser, the chief executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), was asked about the status of a pledge made in January 2020 to give an extra £300 million to “fund experimental and imaginative mathematical sciences research by the very best global talent over the next five years”.

That investment of about £60 million a year – which was referenced by the science minister, George Freeman, as recently as November 2021 – was designed to “double funding for new PhDs, as well as boost the number of maths fellowships and research projects – increasing the pool of trained mathematicians in the UK and providing more freedom for researchers to develop new ideas”, according to the announcement, made jointly by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

It was widely seen as the direct result of Dominic Cummings’ influence in Downing Street at the time, with the prime minister’s then-chief adviser having revealed that one of his demands for working in government was a massive increase in research spending, with maths one of his favoured areas.

However, Dame Ottoline told the committee of MPs that UKRI had not received a ring-fenced amount to cover the high-profile promise.

“We did not receive £300 million specifically labelled ‘mathematical sciences’ despite the announcement,” said Dame Ottoline.

Instead, UKRI would support mathematics by “juggling” funding from across a wide range of sources as part of “balancing funding across the whole research and innovation system”, she said.

Overall, support for mathematics research would amount to £124 million of “already allocated” funding, of which 45 per cent would be spent on PhD studentships and fellowships and 27 per cent on grants. Some 28 per cent would also go directly to universities and institutes, Dame Ottoline added.

However, this settlement, which follows last month’s publication of UKRI’s budget for the next three years, had inevitably disappointed leaders from the maths community because the funder had been “unable to justify the rest of the £300 million in the dedicated ring-fenced pot that was originally conceived”, continued Dame Ottoline.

Academics in this area did “consider themselves losers” in funding terms despite efforts to find replacement funds from other cross-council sources, she said.

However, this had arisen because “it is not easy to identify the full £300 million pot that was announced, but we are absolutely committed to support the mathematical sciences as a core discipline, and it is incredibly important right across research and innovation”, said Dame Ottoline.

The committee’s chairman, Greg Clark, a former universities minister, called the news “concerning”, adding that “£300 million, by anyone’s standards, is a lot of money”. “To have singled it out…when there is a rising [science] budget there, the only reason for not doing it is that the government has deprioritised mathematics, in contradiction to the statement that it made very recently.”

However, the science minister said he would not return to the House of Commons to explain the government’s position on the promise, adding that there was no suggestion that maths had been deprioritised.

Mr Freeman, who was also giving evidence to the committee, said he did not intend to come back to the dispatch box on the issue because he was working with Dame Ottoline “to see if we can honour this commitment, somehow”.

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