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Congressional Visits: A Boost to ASA Science Policy

1 October 2009 1,390 views No Comment

Statistics Cited
Jana Asher

Photo by Jana Asher

Photo by Jana Asher

During our day of visits to congressional offices (as part of the “March on Washington” ASA President Sally Morton described in her presidential address), David Marker, Keith Ord, and I—all of the Maryland delegation—couldn’t resist stopping at the Library of Congress during a break to look at the beautiful architecture and artwork. And, after discovering the mosaic titled “Minerva” in the Great Hall East Side, I couldn’t resist describing it to you.

    “Minerva” is by Elihu Vedder (1836–1923) and depicts the Roman goddess of learning and wisdom holding a scroll in her left hand that lists academic fields. Standing next to Minerva on the left is a small statue of Nike (the goddess of victory) holding a laurel wreath and palm branch out to visitors, simultaneously symbolizing victory and peace. On the right side of Minerva is an owl, representing wisdom. Finally, the sun is shining over the clouds in the mosaic. The viewer is left with the impression that the victory of knowledge over ignorance brings prosperity and peace. Minerva, herself, holds a spear in her right hand, as if she understands that constant vigilance is required to safeguard our knowledge and allow it to grow.

      So why am I describing all this? Because prominently displayed on the scroll listing academic fields is statistics. It is nice to know that Minerva is there to continue reminding Congress of the essential role of statistics in our academic pursuits and society—long after the first march of statisticians on Capitol Hill recedes into memory.

        Receptive Response

        Participants reported a positive response to the ASA messages. While there were the inevitable glassy-eyed staffers and short meetings in hallways, staffers (and senators) seemed to genuinely understand the importance of statistical literacy and showed a willingness to promote it. The following characterizations by two participants were typical:

        “There was interest across the board, and I think our visits were very successful.”
        — Michelle Quinlan of Nebraska

        “I felt that the feedback was generally very positive and that we, indeed, made a ‘splash’ in getting the word out about the ASA and the issues we wish to advocate for as statisticians.”
        — Daniel Rudoy of Massachusetts

        In a meeting with HELP committee staff members, the Massachusetts team reported that the staffer walked in with a copy of the Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Statistics Education (GAISE) Report and in the words of ASA member Nicholas Horton, “made the case for us.” (ASA staff member Rebecca Nichols and I had met with the staffer this spring.)

        Participants used examples to demonstrate the relevance and value of statistical literacy. Jim Cochran of Louisiana wrote the following after the visits:

        I found it very easy and compelling to link statistical literacy (and the implied understanding of risk) to the broader economic collapse and the crises in the mortgage and consumer credit industries—statistically literate, analytic, critical thinking consumers understood early in this process that the conditions were unsustainable and that these markets were unstable, and these consumers used this understanding to avoid (as much as possible) the ramifications of the ultimate (and likely unavoidable) outcome. I was also able to connect statistical literacy to state/regional work force development/investment in human capital.

        Exemplifying the need to educate staffers about what statistics is and what statisticians do, Joel Reynolds of Alaska said, “Most of the staffers perceived statistics to just be the making of dry tables of summary numbers. They were all receptive to our clarifying that the field was really focused on critical thinking and methodology for the whole investigate process, from question formulation through data collection, analysis, and interpretation. The staffers all became very interested and shared our concerns over critical thinking skills. They did not realize that was what the profession was all about.”

        Reynolds shared another encounter in which he and Tammy Tom of Hawaii demonstrated the value of statistical literacy at the K–6 level. He said, “The staffer questioned how statistics could be taught in first grade (elementary education in general). Tammy and I mentioned two exercises—an investigation comparing two chocolate chip cookie recipes to see which is crisper and an investigation making multiple measurements on leaves to demonstrate variation around a central value—after which she suddenly appeared ‘enlightened.’”

        “I felt that the feedback was generally very positive and that we, indeed, made a ‘splash’ in getting the word out about the ASA and the issues we wish to advocate for as statisticians.”
        — Daniel Rudoy of Massachusetts

        Reflecting the fiscal environment, the NIH’s $10 billion in funding in this winter’s stimulus bill, and the NSF’s $3 billion funding, the response to the NSF and NIH requests was generally more subdued. Kathy Morrissey of Illinois articulated a common response when she said, “Although all expressed agreement that NIH should receive more funding, they regretted that it was unlikely to happen in the current budget negotiations.”

        Positive Experiences

        Like the congressional staffers, ASA members also seemed to benefit from the visits, which came at an interesting time—the Senate still in session and the House in recess. So, while Senate staffers scrambled in the rush to wrap up for the August recess, House staffers were relaxed, dressed in jeans, and generous with their time. The Senate office buildings were bustling—especially with the debate over and vote on Judge Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court occurring on the nearby Senate floor—while the House office buildings were eerily quiet. I think the participants’ detailed and prompt reports of their meetings signaled their enthusiasm and good feelings for the day’s experiences.

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