John Hemming is a Liberal Democrat MP standing for re-election in Birmingham Yardley. He has a degree in physics and background in IT.
I recently addressed a gathering of Physics graduates from my old Oxford college, Magdalen. I pointed out that in fact there were more graduates of Magdalen in the House of Commons (10) than there were physicists (3).
I think the absence of hard science graduates is a problem for politics. A lot of politics relates to things which are measured by numbers. For example the National Grid currently estimate the peak demand for gas at 502 million cubic metres of gas per day, but estimated the peak availability over the weekend at 428 mcm/d. To me that is a problem. To politics it is “business as usual”. Until the lights go out government ministers don’t worry. I worry that we were recently exporting gas from Medium Range Storage when we are actually quite short of stored gas.
Perhaps the worst numerical mistake of the government was in calculating the adoption target. A calculation was done working out how many children were adopted from care in comparison to the number of children in care. From a mathematical perspective that worked out a percentage of children per year over children. That obviously fails from a dimensional analysis perspective.
The real world consequence was that whereas the majority of children under 10 in England were leaving care through adoption in fact the government were reporting a figure of around 6% of children adopted from care. This caused academics to indicate that adoption from care was a relatively rare placement. For example this article by Alan Rushton states “3800 children were adopted from care: this is 6% of children in care for more than 6 months” and “Nevertheless, it would be wrong to think that any wholesale moving of children from birth families into adoptive families is taking place. Adoption from care concerns just a small proportion (6%) of all looked after children in England (Department for Education and Skills, 2005) and so remains a relatively uncommon solution to the needs of these young people.”
This broken mathematics has resulted in a skewing of judgment in care proceedings which results in large numbers of children being wrongly removed from their natural families. Often the children are traumatised by this as well as the parents. Last week two babies were born in Spain to families who left to avoid their unborn children being removed at birth and adopted. The care system has basically been broken by an error of mathematics.
This to me as a physicist is a big issue. However, the mathematics sadly is too complex for many newspaper editors to understand and as a consequence I have been unable to place the story in the press. If we had more physicists and engineers in politics perhaps one could hope that such errors would be more widely recognised and corrected before they have too much of a damaging outcome.