Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Council for the Mathematical Sciences

  Thank you for inviting the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, London Mathematical Society and The Royal Statistical Society to make a late submission for the forthcoming White Paper on Science and Innovation Strategy. Since none of the three societies were involved in the consultation for the previous White Paper, it would seem to be more appropriate that our submission look to the future and consider the strategic concerns of mathematics, its interactions with other areas of science and technology, and its potential contributions to wealth creation and the quality of life.

  The applications of mathematics have undergone a tremendous growth over the past decade. Mathematical ideas, methods and techniques now pervade nearly all other scientific disciplines and engineering, and underpin many developments which are essential for the nation's economic well-being and for improvements in the quality of life. Diverse examples of this key underpinning role include:

    (a)  the use of statistics in the understanding and control of epidemics, the management of risk and the use of stochastic methods in finance;

    (b)  the secure transfer of information using cryptography, managing the increase of internet traffic and the use of mathematics in software design and verification;

    (c)  the modelling, analysis and hence interpretation of complex biological data sets, such as arise from the Human Genome Project;

    (d)  the new mathematical techniques being used in Engineering and Materials Science in problems ranging from the design of smart materials to the use of virtual reality in simulating complex physical processes.

  The UK has an excellent history of mathematical scholarship and British mathematical research is still amongst the best in the world. One would expect that any strategy for science would wish to optimise the benefits from mathematics and its applications. It is vital to appreciate and understand the tension between so-called "blue skies" mathematical research and applications. Some applications, such as in computing and modelling, are reasonably predictable; others are not so easily foreseen—such as the use of number theory in cryptography and the use of topology in understanding defects in crystals. In order to flourish, most scientific disciplines require their own internal goals. Despite the immense importance of its applications, mathematics will not flourish in a purely service role. Continuing support is therefore needed both for "blue skies" mathematical research as well as for more applied kinds of research.

  The two principal problems that are most likely to inhibit the realising of the potential benefits of mathematics in the UK are:

    (a)  The lack of appreciation by the public and policy-makers of the depth, importance and diversity of the application of mathematics. In consequence the British mathematics community currently suffers from rather low morale. Here we should mention that we are greatly concerned about the current low funding base for mathematics in the EPSRC, although we do note with pleasure the recent increases in funding and the joint initiatives with other research councils, both of which recognise the need for improvement.

    (b)  The nation will need an increasingly mathematically skilled and trained work force to compete on the international stage. One aspect of this problem is well illustrated by the current difficulty in recruiting well qualified Ph.D students. Also the high demand for students with mathematics doctorates is causing immense difficulties in maintaining the academic base in mathematics that is essential to train the next generation of mathematicians and continue the current level of research.

25 July 2000

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