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New Year, New President, New Opportunities

1 January 2017 124 views One Comment

Barry D. Nussbaum

Happy New Year! Just like the rest of the nation, as 2017 begins, the American Statistical Association gets a new president. But unlike national politics, this election proceeded without corruption allegations, FBI probes, sexual assault claims, vulgar language, and jail threats. With all this lacking, does that mean we are a boring association? Hardly.

This is a tremendously exciting time for the American Statistical Association. Opportunities abound with the greater emphasis on data-driven solutions. Challenges also abound with the deluge of Big Data. So, it is a great time to be a member of the ASA, the largest professional statistical society in the world. And yes, it is a fabulous time to be the ASA’s president for me. I am honored.

Omitting the vitriolic remarks that existed in the national election, you probably deserve to know more about me. Before leaving politics, however, I will acknowledge that both Donald Trump and I were born and raised in Jamaica, New York. He lived in an area in which I used to ride my bike. So, it appears we are both beginning terms as president. I think I got the better deal. Enough said about that.

My experience at the EPA made me something of a jack of all trades in using different statistical methods to address a wide array of problems, each with their own peculiarities and nuances.

For many of us, it is hard to point to the time we knew we were going into statistics. For me, I can remember the exact minute. It didn’t occur the way most of you would imagine. I was just weeks away from my bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. My professor from an abstract algebra class saw me on campus and inquired if I would be pursuing mathematics at the graduate level. I simply answered “no.” I was more interested in operations research and statistics. He inquired, “Why don’t you want to continue in pure mathematics, the queen of the sciences?” Lacking the wisdom and diplomacy I have since acquired, I told him I assumed graduate mathematics was the same old stuff with the epsilons and deltas just getting smaller. What I could have, and should have, said was that I found applying analytic and statistical techniques to real problems far more satisfying. I love seeing something work right because of our accurate and appropriate statistical analysis.

Confirmation of my selection of statistics occurred several years later when the judge in an administrative court case decided in favor of the Environmental Protection Agency. He ruled that EPA could recall 208,000 Chrysler vehicles for excessive carbon monoxide emissions based on my sample of 10 vehicles. Wow! That convinced me of the power of statistics and the ability of statistics to play such a major role in issues affecting our lives.

That victory was early in my 40-year career with the EPA. I retired in 2016 after having served as EPA’s chief statistician for eight years. Along the way, I saw the remarkable power our field has in the development of public policy—environmental regulation and enforcement in my case. So, I am a devotee of statistics providing impact. However, I have also learned that the impact can often be blunted when we fail to communicate effectively to those making the decisions and policies.

Many have heard my mantra, “It’s not what we said, it’s not what they heard, it’s what they say they heard.” I will elaborate on my efforts to improve our communicative abilities in March’s President’s Corner. So, in the meantime, think about your communications skills the last time you were called upon to collaborate on an important project. Did your input carry the desired weight?

Now, lest you think I only pay attention to those statisticians who are somehow doing consulting work—where collaboration is crucial—I maintain we all have to improve our ability to make sure the other party truly understands our analysis and conclusions to derive the intended impact. Or as David van Dyk once eloquently stated at an ASA Board meeting, “A statistician who does not collaborate is not a statistician.” Or, thinking of Tukey’s famous quote, I hope we are one of the major builders of the castle in the other guy’s sand box.

My experience at the EPA made me something of a jack of all trades in using different statistical methods to address a wide array of problems, each with their own peculiarities and nuances. Many of my colleagues would probably emphasize the “master of none” portion of that proverb when describing me. (Good thing I am writing this column, not them!) I think this ability to be helpful in many areas will serve me well as ASA president. Instead of being focused on just a specialty, it gives me the ability to look at problems with a broader perspective, apply a modicum of common sense, and then call on experts as we go into details. Or, as my friend and colleague Nagaraj Neerchal once aptly phrased it, “I am the country doctor type of statistician.”

This country doctor approach comes to me honestly. My dad was an old-time general practitioner. Yup, the kind with the stethoscope, the tongue depressor, the reflex hammer, and the black bag. He also did house calls, and, lots of times, I went along for the ride. This enabled me to hear a great deal of dad’s philosophy that you can make a better diagnosis if, instead of immediately running a cadre of tests, you first ask the patient a lot of questions and carefully listen to the answers. This, of course, leads to better treatments and results. I think we can use that line of thinking quite profitably today. (For those who read between the lines, you are correct. Riding with my dad on house calls also gave my mom some free time!)

But this generalist approach is not to say I don’t have specific ideas. In fact, there are three very important presidential initiatives that I have started. They will be discussed in detail in next month’s column. Spoiler alert: They concern communications, motivation of youth, and engagement of the ASA’s fastest-growing segment. But don’t wait for future months to get involved. Our ongoing section and chapter activities provide each and every one of you an opportunity to enrich your knowledge, network with others, and augment professional growth. And don’t forget, coming quite soon (February 23–25) is the popular and instructive Conference on Statistical Practice in Jacksonville, Florida.

As I begin my term, I want to sincerely thank all those people who did the work in 2016 to pave the way for a dynamic ASA in 2017. This includes the immediate past presidents who provided guidance I will not forget. It also includes all the council chairs who evaluated and nominated about 500 members for committee appointments. It certainly includes the very capable and enthusiastic ASA staff members in Alexandria, who are probably getting used to my frequent visits to the building. But, to be an effective president, I need the support of the entire association. That means you. And, remember the more you put into our society, the more you get out of it. I look forward to working with you.

Significantly forward,


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One Comment »

  • andrew stoeckle said:

    This will be an exciting year of change. Barry, I look forward to hearing more on your perspectives from the helm.

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