ASA Delegation to Cuba
In 2010, People to People Ambassador Programs, an organization that has been facilitating trips expanding global awareness since 1956, approached the ASA about the possibility of taking a delegation abroad. After careful consideration, the ASA leadership decided this would be a unique outreach opportunity. And so was born the tradition of ASA presidents leading a delegation of ASA members to a different country every year.
In 2010, then President Sastry Pantula chose China and led a delegation on a 12-day exploration of the country’s culture and its statistical training programs, infrastructure, and literacy. 2011 President Nancy Geller followed with a People to People trip to Israel, and, last year, current Past-President Bob Rodriguez led a delegation to Russia.
In mid-2012, it was my turn to choose a country to visit this year.
For some time, I have heard from European and South-American colleagues about the long tradition of scholarship in mathematics and statistics in Cuba. From 2006 to 2011, Geert Molenberghs coordinated a Cuban-Flemish outreach program through the Center for Statistics (CenStat) at Hasselt University in Belgium focused on introducing biostatistics training and research at the University of Havana in collaboration with biotechnology institutes in the Havana region. This project resulted in the creation of a master’s program in biostatistics administered by the university’s faculty of mathematics and computer science, which has already graduated a number of students. Geert and several of his colleagues have visited Cuba more than 20 times, working with students and presenting short courses, and they have reported the strong interest among Cuban statisticians in promoting the role of statistics in research and government and in expanding interaction with statisticians abroad, as has Clarice Demétrio, 2012-2013 president of the International Biometric Society, who has also given short courses there.
Because of the political situation between the U.S. and Cuba, I knew that an ASA delegation to Cuba might be controversial. However, given all I had heard and with the 2011 easing of restrictions on Americans’ travel to Cuba I decided to explore the possibility. Outreach to a statistical community keen to initiate more global collaboration seemed consistent with the spirit of the International Year of Statistics.
ASA Executive Director Ron Wasserstein and I contacted many people across the profession, and, overall, the reaction was supportive. So I decided to make Cuba my choice, accepting that there would be some ASA members who would not agree. Because People to People was not yet licensed for travel to Cuba, we switched to Professionals Abroad, a division of Academic Travel Abroad (ATA), a company with more than 50 years of experience arranging educational travel.
When the trip was announced last October, some ASA members expressed disapproval of an ASA delegation to a communist country, but otherwise the response was overwhelmingly positive. The main concern was the cost. As with all delegations, it is high because it includes almost everything—travel, accommodations, most meals, transportation within the country, English-speaking guides, and all necessary visas and licenses. No ASA funds are used for any delegation; each participant is responsible for his/her own costs.
ATA began working with Amistur, the Cuban people-to-people agency responsible for coordinating the program and providing a guide/translator and bus. Shortly thereafter, I began to receive emails from Cuban statisticians, who put together a committee to work with Amistur to arrange the scientific agenda.
Soon, I was in regular communication with Luis Ramiro Piñeiro, dean of the faculty of mathematics and computer science at the university; his colleague Carlos Bouza, in charge of the group on probability and statistics; and Pedro Valdés-Sosa, vice director for research at the Cuban Neuroscience Center and internationally known in statistical modeling of neuroimaging data. I also heard from ASA members signed up for the trip, requesting exposure to how statisticians are trained; their research; how they are involved in government, public health, and health care; and opportunities for collaboration. I conveyed this to the Cubans, wondering how they could possibly assemble a program exposing us to all of this in a meaningful way.
They did. A few weeks before the trip, I received the tentative agenda from ATA. I was floored—four days of systematic presentations, meetings, and tours covering not only everything we had requested, but things we didn’t even know to request.
On May 19, the 18-member delegation departed Miami for Havana. Among us were academicians; statisticians from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), National Institutes of Health, Google, and the U.S. Census Bureau (retired); and even a PhD student. We were met by our outstanding Amistur guide, Amircal, outside of customs, where he stood holding a sign reading “American Statistical Association,” which subsequently was displayed on the windshield of our bus. The rest of the day included an orientation
and review of the agenda, sightseeing (Plaza de la Revolución, El Capitolio), and dinner in Old Havana.
The next day, our immersion into statistics in Cuba began at Casa de la Amistad, a center for scientific exchange in the heart of Havana. The morning featured presentations by Luis Ramiro, Carlos, and colleagues (adeptly translated by Amircal when required) on statistical education and methodological research at the university, including the master’s programs in biostatistics and statistics and the PhD program, and on biostatistics training for health professionals. I gave an overview of the ASA and International Year, followed by brief presentations of background and interests by each delegation member. That afternoon, we visited the university and the mathematics and statistics facilities. The quality of the academic programs and research is high, in spite of (to us) limited computational resources and access to scholarly publications.
On Tuesday we were back at Casa de la Amistad for presentations on the diversity of statistical activity in public health. Overviews of the role of statisticians in general and specifically in the Institute for Tropical Medicine; the Animal Sciences Institute and other agricultural centers; the Institute for Cybernetics, Mathematics, and Physics; the Center for Medical Genetics; and the clinical research programs at Havana’s enormous Hermanos Ameijeiras General Hospital were fascinating. The level of sophistication and range of research projects were impressive. We learned of the work of statisticians maintaining and analyzing data from the National Cancer Registry, which longitudinally follows every cancer patient in the country. National registries for twins, birth defects, and familial disorders support robust research programs in genetics and genetic epidemiology.
The third day, we traveled to the so-called “Scientific Pole” in the western part of Havana, home to a cluster of biomedical and biotechnological research institutes. At the Center for Molecular Immunology (CIM), we heard presentations about clinical and bioinformatics research from statisticians at the CIM, the Genetic and Biologic Engineering Center, the Neuroscience Center, and the National Coordinating Center of Clinical Trials. The latter is effectively a contract research organization that coordinates pharmaceutical, biologic, and device trials for major companies worldwide, as well as for the government organization devoted to commercialization of CIM-derived biopharmaceutical products and administers a network of clinical sites throughout the country (an FDA site visit was, in fact, upcoming).
That afternoon, we visited the University’s Center of the Study of Demography (CEDEM) and the National Statistical Information Office and were provided statistical reports on Cuba’s population and resources.
Thursday had us back at Casa de la Amistad for a full morning of unstructured interchange with virtually all statisticians we met during the previous three days. Groups of Cubans and Americans with common interests formed spontaneously, and we discussed in-depth possibilities for future collaboration. My group, comprising biostatisticians involved in clinical research, identified a concrete first step: We will collaborate on substantive research projects centered on CIM studies of lung cancer and psoriasis, which will undoubtedly lead not only to joint publications, but also to identification of needed research and eventually what we hope will be an ongoing relationship. The country’s remarkable health data resources are a potential treasure trove that can drive both substantive advances and methodological research.
Other groups discussed possible joint educational initiatives, and several of us agreed to return to Cuba next year to teach short courses on topics such as survival analysis and causal inference.
Of course, we did take time during the week to explore the city and culture. Amircal (a former English professor with an impressive command of American colloquialisms) was an expert not only at translation, but also on the history of the city, country, and people. He regaled us with background on Old Havana and its architecture and suggested “non-tourist” restaurants and salsa clubs.
We left Cuba with tremendous respect for our new colleagues. We all admitted amazement at our prior lack of knowledge about the vitality and breadth of activity of the Cuban statistical community. Their goal is to enhance the quality of their methods and domain science research and practice through interaction with statisticians in the United States, whom they regard as being at the forefront of the field. We have set up a Google site through which we can share materials and resources. In saying farewell, we agreed that while our governments might disagree, that should not stop our communities from forging a fruitful statistical partnership.