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Increasing the Visibility of the Statistics Profession

1 January 2014 269 views No Comment
This column is written for statisticians with master’s degrees and highlights areas of employment that will benefit statisticians at the master’s level. Comments and suggestions should be sent to Megan Murphy, Amstat News managing editor, at megan@amstat.org.

Contributing Editors

Murray_SharonSharon Murray is manager of statistics at GlaxoSmithKline. She holds a BA in statistics from the University of Michigan and master’s and PhD degrees in biostatistics from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Gauvin_JenniferJennifer Gauvin earned her PhD in statistics from North Carolina State University. She works at GlaxoSmithKline in clinical statistics.

Amarjot KaurAmarjot Kauris the current chair of ASA Committee on Applied Statisticians and has contributed actively in its various activities. She earned her PhD in statistics and is an executive director of clinical biostatistics at Merck Research Laboratories. She has contributed extensively to the statistical applications in the field of medicine and public health, including general clinical trial designs and analyses. Prior to joining Merck, Kaur was a postdoctoral fellow in the department of statistics at Penn State.

    The visibility of statisticians and statistics as a profession was an important part of this year’s theme for JSM: “Celebrating the International Year of Statistics.” The purpose of this article is to share some of the ideas for increasing visibility that arose during a panel discussion organized by the members of the Committee on Applied Statisticians titled “Diverse Applications of Statistics: Are We Doing Enough in Creating Visibility?”

    Panelists included Bob Rodriguez, senior director of R&D at SAS; Amit Bhattacharyya, senior director of quantitative sciences at GlaxoSmithKline; Jim Rosenberger, former department chair and current director of the online master’s of applied statistics program at Penn State University; and Roger Lewis, a physician and chair of the department of emergency medicine at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and senior medical scientist for Berry Consultants.

    Panelists came from both academia and industry and brought the ASA perspective to the discussion, as well. Bob is the past president of the ASA, Jim is a vice president of the ASA, and Amit is the current chair of the Biopharmaceutical Section of the ASA. Roger added the perspective of a physician who is heavily involved in clinical trial research—adaptive clinical trials in particular—and often interacts with applied statisticians. Audience members were invited to participate toward the end of the session, and this part of the discussion was lively, especially considering it took place during the last session of JSM!

    The discussion focused on four key questions:

    • How has the application of statistics played a critical role in innovation, affected research advances, and shaped policy?
    • What is the impact of statistical application in interdisciplinary collaboration and decisionmaking?
    • Considering the many ways in which the field of statistics contributes value in our society, why is our profession not more visible to the media and the general public?
    • What more can you do as a statistician to increase positive visibility for our discipline?

    In response to Question 1, key examples cited were the use of statistical modeling in business to improve operational performance and understanding of customers, the role innovative designs have played in the drug development paradigm in getting new medicines to market quickly, and the role of statistics in bioinformatics and genomics research. In addition, Roger mentioned the effect that statistics has had on shaping policies for patient-centered research, and Jim commented that statisticians have even designed experiments to test the effect of various public policies on outcomes.

    In response to Question 2, the panel provided several examples of important contributions to collaborative work by statisticians. For example, statisticians and physicians must work together to design efficient clinical trials, particularly those with adaptive or Bayesian features. Computer scientists and statisticians are working together to design software for fraud detection, and bioinformatics work requires extensive collaboration between statisticians, computer scientists, and biologists. It also was noted that statisticians could help with decisionmaking in the courtroom by providing expert testimony.

    In response to Question 3, the panel observed that statisticians and journalists are trained to think differently. Statisticians are trained to state all assumptions and discuss various options. They may provide more than one interpretation for data and tend to emphasize the complexity of the analysis, rather than the results. In contrast, journalists are trained to provide concise summaries and highlight key points. One way for statisticians to increase their visibility is to obtain training in how to talk with the media. Think of developing an “elevator speech” to describe a study design and/or observed results in a way that can be understood by the general public in the time it takes to ride an elevator from the first to the fourth floor.

    A positive trend is that the field of statistics has gained visibility as the number of high-school students taking AP Statistics has increased year after year. In turn, this growth has led to a recent dramatic increase in the number of university students who are now majoring in statistics. Members of the ASA can contribute by calling their local high school and volunteering to talk to AP Statistics classes about their work. Amit said the Biopharmaceutical Section has been developing a website for students to increase visibility of statistics as a successful career option, which is still being enhanced.

    The exposure to statistics that many high-school students are getting now also will lead to greater statistical literacy among the people with whom statisticians collaborate in the future. Similarly, Jim talked about the large amount of interest that the professional master’s of applied statistics program at Penn State has received. He attributes this to the recognition that statistical skills are valued in the workplace. In addition, the book Moneyball inadvertently raised the level of visibility of the profession.

    In response to Question 4, Bob pointed out that a 2012 ASA initiative led to the development of training in effective presentation skills for statisticians. It is taught by ASA volunteers and available to local groups of ASA members, such as chapters. For more information, visit the ASA website. Members can contact Rick Peterson at rick@amstat.org to find out if a trainer is available to deliver the course in their area.

    In summary, the declaration of 2013 as the International Year of Statistics provided the perfect jumping-off point for increasing the visibility of statistics as a profession and showing the value of the field of statistics in our society. Many excellent ideas were provided by panelists and audience members as to how this may be achieved on both national and local levels.

    An interesting example of increasing the visibility of statistics on a local level came from an audience member who told a story about something that happened to her when she took a job at a manufacturing plant. She met with a manager in manufacturing on her first day who indicated he was not interested in statistics and asked her to go away and not waste his time. She went away and spent some time thinking about what she could do. After two weeks, she went to the manager and explained she had a plan for using statistics to help him save up to $2 million per year. Guess what? He suddenly became very interested in statistics and the collaboration between the statistician and manager did lead to saving the company a considerable amount of money.

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