It was appropriate that Rishi Sunak closed Conservative conference with a long term decision on the future of high speed rail. Whether you look at the issues around HS2 through an engineering or an economic lens you come back to the same discipline, one that the PM has rightly identified as key to national success – maths.
It is mathematics that underpins the very technology that allows trains to hit such remarkable speeds. And it’s maths at the core of the budgeting issues that have bedevilled the project to link London, Birmingham and Manchester.
Perhaps if there was more mathematical expertise in Whitehall and Westminster it wouldn’t have become such a hot topic. Recent research by The Constitution Unit found a tiny fraction of MPs staff have a background in the mathematical sciences and the proportions aren’t much better among MPs or civil servants.
Politics is a people business. It’s perhaps inevitable that those studying the humanities and social sciences would be overwhelmingly drawn to it as a career.
But that raises two points that need to be challenged. The first is that we tolerate a lack of mathematical expertise in politics and policy making. The second is the idea that maths is not a people business.
Both assumptions are rooted in the old image of a mathematician as a lone genius, likely a white-haired white man, standing at a blackboard reckoning with some colossal equation. It’s as baffling as it is disappointing that this idea has been allowed to take hold.
For maths is much more than that. It’s a discipline that embraces collaboration. Maths is a language that describes the world around us. What use is a language with no-one to talk to?
Maths is certainly not confined to the classroom. It is all around us from the clock that wakes us in the morning to the mobile phone that we often reach for before it’s strictly necessary, to the streaming services and social media we unwind with in the evening. All rely on numbers, data, algorithms.
We cannot afford to accept an insufficiency of maths in parliament and government for policy challenges cannot be solved without it.
Climate change can only be understood through data. And it will be solved with new ideas and technology that will be derived direct from mathematical concepts and study.
Energy supply and the cost of electricity and gas dominate the thoughts of many of us. None more so than the mathematicians grappling with the necessary modelling, creating the simulations and generating the technology that will inevitably and ultimately solve the energy crisis.
It was mathematics that modelled the Covid pandemic, that underpinned the science behind the vaccines and drove the logistics behind the rollout of millions of jabs. And it’s mathematics that will help the NHS cope with current pressures and improve its response into the future.
Maths remains fundamental to code-breaking and national security. It’s entirely appropriate that the Prime Minister will convene an international summit on AI at Bletchley Park, the site of Alan Turing’s work on the Enigma code and the development of early computers, next month. For the very maths that drove the wartime codebreaking and led to the development of the first computers has brought us to the brink of an AI revolution.
Rishi Sunak has an obvious interest in maths. He’s determined that all pupils should be taught it in some form through to the very end of their school days. That’s the foundation of his ambition to make the UK a science superpower and to equip the nation for a world filled with technology.
But we must be wary of too narrow a focus.
If the UK is to remain at the cutting edge of STEM then it needs a healthy pipeline of maths talent, running from encouraging enjoyment and numeracy among the very young right through to our elite institutions and adequately funded research. The most recent recipient of the Fields Medal – the maths equivalent of a Nobel Prize – was British, James Maynard of Oxford University.
We need more teachers with a specialism in maths, and comprehensive training for those who have switched to teaching maths without a degree in the subject.
And we need to protect and promote maths of every stripe at university. As well as the sort of maths that underpins our most urgent technological innovations – driverless cars, AI, quantum computing – we must nurture the more theoretical elements of the discipline too
It’s because maths is fundamental to everyday life that it was pleasing to see the PM return to it in his conference speech. It’s undoubtedly true that we take it for granted. That’s why I’m pleased to support the Protect Pure Maths campaign working to improve the understanding of maths among politicians and the public.
Maths matters. It’s already all around us and its importance to tackling the crises we face and in building a bright future for the UK and the world as we rely further on technology will only increase. We will only be able to keep up with more maths expertise in Whitehall and Westminster.
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