No 10’s U-turn on UK maths funding ‘short-sighted’

Ditching high-profile pledge to spend £300 million more on maths research over next five years will harm under-pressure discipline, experts warn

June 26, 2022
A graph on a blackboard turns downwards
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Leading UK mathematicians and statisticians have condemned the Westminster government’s decision to renege on a promised £300 million uplift to maths research as “deeply disappointing” and “extremely short-sighted”.

The criticism follows the news that UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has not be able to make good on a £60 million-a-year increase in mathematics research over the next five years announced by Downing Street in January 2020 because it did not receive a ring-fenced allocation in its latest three-year budget, published last month.

Speaking at a parliamentary committee hearing, UKRI’s chief executive Dame Ottoline Leyser said her organisation “did not receive £300 million specifically labelled ‘mathematical sciences’ despite the announcement”, with the discipline instead having to rely on £124 million of “already allocated” funding from research councils.

Despite the pledge by science minister George Freeman that he would “see if we can honour this commitment somehow”, several leading maths bodies have expressed their disappointment that the funding designed to double maths PhD numbers and “fund experimental and imaginative mathematical sciences research by the very best global talent” seems unlikely to happen.

Jon Keating, Sedleian professor of natural philosophy at the University of Oxford and president of the London Mathematical Society, said that the promised funding was vital to repair systemic underfunding of maths research in recent years.

“Mathematics needs the additional funds,” said Professor Keating, a spokesman for Protect Pure Maths Campaign, which was instrumental in lobbying for the extra £300 million, who said it “has consistently had the lowest [research] capability funding of any of the STEM disciplines”.

“Unlike most other areas of STEM, capability funding for mathematics actually decreased by 23 per cent between 2012-13 and 2017-18. The additional funding was intended to redress that damaging reduction,” he said.

Professor Keating, former dean of science at the University of Bristol, said that the one-off funding of £300 million was needed to “put mathematics on a more even footing with engineering and ICT, which is essential given that mathematics provides the foundation for and language of all the sciences”, and that failing to provide the funding was “extremely short-sighted”.

“Mathematical sciences were key to our pandemic response – for example in developing and distributing vaccines – and they will unlock the technological breakthroughs and economic success of the future. They are also vital to national security,” he added, stating that it would be “hugely disappointing if the government does not deliver in full the £300 million it promised in 2020”.

“The additional funding for research, fellowships and institutes is a vital step towards restoring Britain’s place as a STEM superpower. If the money is not provided, a major opportunity will have been missed.”

His position was backed by Stian Westlake, chief executive of the Royal Statistical Society, who said the funding was “a major opportunity to build on the successes of statistics, data science and applied maths during the pandemic – to make a moonshot investment that will position the mathematical sciences for long-term growth”.

“While we welcome UKRI’s ongoing investments in the mathematical sciences, it is deeply disappointing that the majority of the promised £300 million of additional funding has not been forthcoming,” said Mr Westlake.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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