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A Tale of Two Conferences

1 September 2017 25 views No Comment

Barry D. Nussbaum

It was the best of times.

In July, I had the opportunity to attend two major statistical conferences, and I realized their similarities and differences may provide some insight into the future of our profession.

In mid-July I was at the 61st International Statistical Institute’s (ISI) World Statistics Congress. ISI 2017 was held in delightful, but hot, Marrakech, Morocco. At the end of July and into early August, it was off to Baltimore for our Joint Statistical Meetings.

For me, the first surprising revelation was that ISI actively seeks the support of the host country in planning and producing the conference. Morocco made a substantial monetary contribution to support the conference. At every room, was the reminder that this conference was “under the high patronage of his majesty King Mohammed VI.” (Notice the king and I in the photo taken during my talk.)

ASA President Barry Nussbaum gives an invited presentation at the 61st International Statistical Institute’s World Statistics Congress in Marrakech, Morocco, in mid-July.

ASA President Barry Nussbaum gives an invited presentation at the 61st International Statistical Institute’s World Statistics Congress in Marrakech, Morocco, in mid-July, next to a portrait of the king.

ISI started with speeches from both the high commissioner of economy and finance and the high commissioner for planning of the Moroccan government. Notably, the ASA conducts JSM in the total opposite: an apolitical atmosphere. I find this a fascinating dichotomy … something to think about.

At the World Statistics Congress, Sir David Cox was honored by being awarded the first International Prize in Statistics. Our profession had noted for years that there was no major international award for statistics. But statistics has been in the limelight recently with the focus on Big Data, increased interest from young people, and a desire by statisticians to increase the public profile of our field. So the ASA—along with the International Biometric Society (IBS), Institute of Mathematical Statistics (IMS), ISI, and Royal Statistical Society (RSS)—teamed up to form the International Prize Foundation. I was honored to be on the stage for the presentation of this first prize.

Pedro Silva, ISI president, welcomed the audience. Representing the ASA, I introduced the prize, followed by IBS President Elizabeth Thompson, who formally announced the winner. Then, Richard Davis, IMS president, presented the award to RSS President David Spiegelhalter, who accepted on behalf of Cox, who was unable to attend personally. However, Cox did express his thanks and gratitude in a video message.

Of course, I am quite grateful to the members of this prize foundation, chaired by Susan Ellenberg, for doing all the work.

So, did this result in the desired increased international recognition of statistics? It is too early to tell, but there is one concrete outcome to report. I was told coverage of the conference lasted at least five minutes on the local French-speaking television news. Unfortunately, the amount of French I understand is seulement un petit peu, so I did not just happen to view the French news. C’est dommage. By the way, French and Arabic are spoken in Morocco, and my understanding of Arabic is even less than French, so I really don’t know if there was further coverage.

The ISI World Statistics Congress had approximately 2,000 attendees over a full week, with a collection of plenary and concurrent events, meetings, and social events. By my not very scientific survey-taking (pure observation at coffee breaks), the crowd seemed to represent mainly European statisticians, contrasting with the large number of Asian statisticians at JSM.

Reflecting the current interest in Big Data, the ISI’s presidential invited keynote speaker was Hadley Wickham, a legend in the R world, who spoke about data science in the tidyverse.

Not surprisingly, in addition to being able to participate in the presentation of the International Prize, a highlight for me was to give a presentation at the invited session with statistical society presidents.

Silva chaired the session and invited Spiegelhalter and me. Spiegelhalter’s talk was titled, “Statistics: A Front Line Weapon in the Fight Against Alternative Facts.” Mine was titled, “The State of the Statistics Profession: It Was the Best of Times; It Is the Best of Times.”

I can’t hide the fact that it was quite a thrill sharing the podium with Spiegelhalter, a prominent statistician. How prominent? He is correctly addressed by adding the appellation “Sir” before his name.

ASA President Barry Nussbaum delivers the president’s address at this year’s JSM in Baltimore.

ASA President Barry Nussbaum delivers the president’s address at this year’s JSM in Baltimore.

Moving to this side of the Atlantic, I had the true pleasure of attending JSM. According to my best accounting, although I am not so good with numbers, this was my 25th JSM, dating back to 1992 in Boston. In fact, I am a believer that the second attendance at a JSM is what really counts, since it means we did something right and folks returned! For those of you who listened to my address this year, you may remember I singled out my second JSM, in which I was greeted by then ASA President Stu Hunter. Fittingly, a spry 94-year-old Hunter was in attendance this year, and was even the recipient of this year’s ASA Mentoring Award. Congratulations, Dr. Hunter.

As an ASA officer, I had the opportunity to view JSM two distinct ways this year. The first concerns the inner workings of the ASA. With two days of board of directors meetings and a few more days of appearances at several governing board meetings, several workshops, several council meetings, several business meetings, several receptions, several chapter meetings, and several committee meetings, I saw first-hand how this society is run by the many members who give their time and effort to promote our organization and our profession. I also saw how the ASA staff works in collaboration to ensure a smoothly running conference. There are an incredible number of Ts to cross. My hat goes off to them.

I was able to welcome and thank the members of the Helen Walker Society who go that extra mile to further support ASA activities. And, yes, I gave the President’s Address. That’s me in the tuxedo.

Of course, the second view was to watch and participate in the many sessions and events in the convention center. It is a true joy for me to see 6,500 attendees running to catch sessions; sitting with colleagues, new friends, and collaborators; viewing publishers, recruiters, and vendors in the EXPO; and even waiting patiently in line at Starbucks.

During my presidential speech, I conveyed thoughts about Big Data and ASA initiatives. I will not repeat those here. (For those of you who just can’t do without, both my talk and the excellent talk of my invited speaker, Jo Craven McGinty of The Wall Street Journal, are available.) I recognize my talk was at the same time as an Orioles game across the street. Apparently, my talk was not broadcast on the jumbotron at the ball park … probably a technical glitch.

So what is my most salient memory from JSM? It is the youthful enthusiasm I witnessed. I want to point to four distinct occasions embedded in my mind.

First, I had the opportunity to welcome the first-time attendees at their orientation and reception Sunday afternoon. JSM had about 1,400 first-timers, and many of them streamed into that reception. It was quite a joy to see that much fresh interest. Please come back next year.

But there was more! At the JSM Opening Mixer, I was dazzled by the number of enthusiastic attendees and the upbeat spirit of camaraderie.

And there is still more! I addressed the student chapter meeting. Student chapters are growing at an explosive rate. This is an incredible reflection on the vibrancy of our profession today. Keep going, students.

The fourth occasion is my stop at the Statistics and the Environment Section meeting. Having spent 40 years at the US Environmental Protection Agency, this was the first section I joined, and I even served as its chair in 2000. So in a big sense, it was like going to my alumni reunion. The attendance was much higher than in my formative years. I do worry about the environment in today’s climate. Seeing so many new faces there reassured me we are in good hands. Taken all together, this youthful enthusiasm assures me that …

It is the best of times.

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