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Members Affect ASA Science Policy

1 June 2010 1,067 views No Comment
This column is written to inform ASA members about what the ASA is doing to promote the inclusion of statistics in policymaking and the funding of statistics research. To suggest science policy topics for the ASA to address, contact ASA Director of Science Policy Steve Pierson at pierson@amstat.org.

Contributing Editor
Pierson-color copySteve Pierson earned his PhD in physics from the University of Minnesota. He spent eight years in the Physics Department of Worcester Polytechnic Institute and later became head of government relations at the American Physical Society before joining the ASA as director of science policy.

Last spring, I wrote a column titled “State of ASA’s Science Policy” (PDF download). I think it is important to keep the ASA membership apprised of such activities, but I think it is more important to further engage members in these efforts and the direction they take. As my examples below indicate, member input is essential to ASA science policy success. So, rather than reporting a comprehensive science policy update, I report on activities sparked by members and strongly encourage members to contact me with suggestions or concerns. While I cannot guarantee that the ASA can act on all suggestions, it’s important for us to hear from you.


Because I think ASA members should know the process for any ASA science policy action, let me explain it, emphasizing that I do not act alone when deciding how to proceed.

After a topic has been suggested, the first step is to assess its importance and pertinence to the ASA and the value of an ASA action. The level of authorization needed for ASA action is also assessed, taking into account such considerations as accordance with previous ASA Board action, ASA bylaws, and the level of support within the ASA.

The next step is for me, the director of science policy, to identify a panel of ASA member experts by soliciting input from the ASA’s leadership, committees, sections, and chapters. This panel then communicates by phone and email to develop a recommendation for the ASA Board.

When developing a recommendation, the panel considers the optimal timing for ASA action and the mode of input (e.g., statement, letter, meeting of ASA leadership with decisionmaker, etc.). The ASA’s executive director and director of science policy provide input and inform the ASA Board or Executive Committee of the panel’s activities, requesting input as necessary and soliciting outside input to make the ASA’s action as constructive as possible.

Once a letter or statement is finalized, I inform interested parties of the ASA’s action, working with the ASA’s public relations specialist when appropriate.

ASA Board Statements

The two statements endorsed by the ASA Board at its April meeting (see Highlights of the April 2010 ASA Board of Directors Meeting) arose from ASA member activity. Knowing that many states would be considering—or reconsidering—election auditing legislation, certain ASA members recognized that the ASA could positively influence this legislation by endorsing the risk-limiting election audits (because of their efficiency advantage over so-called fixed-percentage audits and ability to correct an outcome) and urging that principles, rather than details, be legislated. ASA experts devoted many hours to producing a statement to recommend to the ASA Board. They also sought input from participants in an election auditing workshop held at the ASA last fall that included computer scientists, political scientists, and voting advocates.

The forensic science statement was led by ASA members active in bringing statistical methods to bear on forensic science, including a representative of the ASA Committee on Law and Justice Statistics and people who have served on National Academies panels and/or written extensively on this topic.

Letters from the ASA President

The following three instances from the last year illustrate ASA presidents sending letters as a result of ASA member suggestions.

Hearing that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) might soon reconsider its Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy rules, Jerry Reiter, chair of the ASA Committee on Privacy and Confidentiality, suggested the ASA send a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius explaining the tools statisticians bring to the table. The letter was written and, as a result, Reiter was invited to participate in a HIPAA Privacy Rule deidentification workshop this year.

Seeing the plans of the Michigan State Board of Education to weaken the statistics component in parts of its curriculum, Detroit Chapter members—led by David Fluharty—contacted the ASA. After checking with the ASA president, ASA staff members helped draft a letter, which was revised and sent on December 15, 2009.

After learning a bill before the California legislature would contain a provision to pilot the use of risk-limiting audits, Philip Stark—creator of the methods for conducting such audits and an advocate for their use—contacted the ASA. ASA President Sastry Pantula then wrote a letter of support for the provision. The bill received the unanimous bipartisan support of the California State Assembly Committee on Elections and Redistricting and now awaits further consideration.

NIH and Climate Change Activities

Other ASA action instigated by members involves the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the ASA’s Climate Change Policy Advisory Committee (CCPAC). In NIH’s case, there were two primary drivers. One was an email from member Marie Davidian to the electronic mailing list for the ASA Caucus of Academic Representatives about the possible elimination of the Biostatistics Methods and Research Design (BMRD) study section or its merger with another study section. The overwhelming response to Davidian’s call for grant submissions to BMRD led to enough of an increase in submissions to save the section, assuming the numbers are sustained. It also led to broadening the scope of applications considered by BMRD.

The other driver was the response to a posting by ASA Research and Education Manager Keith Crank to the electronic mailing list for the ASA Caucus of Academic Representatives requesting questions to ask at the town hall meeting held by NIH Director Francis Collins last fall. Questions covered meeting the great demand for biostatisticians and mentoring biostatisticians to the review of biostatistics training grant issues and involvement of statisticians as collaborators. That input led to a letter from 2009 ASA President Sally Morton to Collins; an April visit to Jeremy M. Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences by Morton and Pantula; and the upcoming JSM session on NIH opportunities discussed in Crank’s article, “Who Wants to Be a Biostatistician (or Environmental Statistician, or Social Science Statistician, or …)?”.

CCPAC is the result of a conversation Amy Braverman had with ASA Executive Director Ron Wasserstein at a recent JSM, in which she lamented the lack of engagement by the ASA in issues of the day. A follow-up conversation led to a group of statisticians discussing how ASA members could inform Congress on climate change issues. As the group became more involved, it was made into an ad hoc ASA committee.

In short, ASA members determine ASA science policy activities. If you have a suggestion for ASA action on a policy matter, please contact me at pierson@amstat.org. And if there is a science policy activity you are interested in working on, let me know. Without member input, little ASA science policy work would get done. Such input includes contacting members of Congress and meeting with them or members of their staffs.

ASA Science Policy Actions

ASA responds to an NIGMS request for input on training grants.

    ASA signs a letter supporting reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act this year.

      ASA signs a letter in support of the fiscal year 2011 budget for the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

        ASA signs a letter to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, urging its members to take the lead in affirming the behavioral and social sciences as an important part of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education.

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