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Be a Proud Statistician

1 April 2010 No Comment
Sastry Pantula

Sastry Pantula

As statisticians, we make decisions based on data. Of course, that implies we do have to collect good data. This is the year of the 2010 Census: Please make sure that you complete your census form. Also, spread the word on the importance of completing the census form in your neighborhood and with your Facebook friends.

Next, an important reminder to anyone who cares about the future direction of the ASA: If you have not voted in the ASA elections yet, please take the time to cast your vote before May 17, 2010. Show your support to our excellent volunteers who want to ensure that the ASA continues to thrive. To quote Barry Nussbaum, who wrote to me after my March column, “As a profession, we strive to reduce nonresponse in everything we do, yet it appears we don’t even vote in our own society’s elections. I find that very disappointing, to say the least.” Help us achieve a record voter turnout this year. Also, please help ASA collect your opinions as it sends out occasional surveys and then makes decisions based on data. What a novel idea!

Let me wish you all a very happy Ugadi (Telugu New Year, March 16, 2010). This is the first day of a new year according to the South Indian Lunar Calendar, and it falls typically in March–April of the Gregorian calendar. We start the day eating Ugadi pacchadi, a unique dish consisting of brown sugar, raw mango, tamarind, neem flowers, salt, and hot green chili peppers. This dish symbolizes that life is a mixture of different experiences—sadness, happiness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise—which should be accepted together. As a kid, I used to say “Yuck! Give me my dessert instead.” As I get to my midlife, I know better now. I look forward to a Happy New Year and prepare myself for whatever the future brings. But I still hope it includes a pecan pie!

Recently, I attended a conference organized by the National Academy of Engineering in Raleigh, North Carolina. The theme of the conference was “Grand Challenges for Engineering.” These include the following: (1) make solar energy economical; (2) provide energy from fusion; (3) develop carbon sequestration methods; (4) manage the nitrogen cycle; (5) provide access to clean water; (6) restore and improve urban infrastructure; (7) advance health informatics; (8) engineer better medicines; (9) reverse-engineer the brain; (10) prevent nuclear terror; (11) secure cyberspace; (12) enhance virtual reality; (13) advance personalized learning; and (14) engineer the tools of scientific discovery. One message that was loud and clear from the conference was that engineers are here to solve global problems and find innovative solutions to make the world a better place for future generations. Most scientists and politicians are focusing their energies on sustainability, the environment, and health issues—rightfully so!

What are the important challenges in our profession? Think, think, think.
Energy, the environment, and health care are certainly important research topics for statisticians as well as priority research areas at many universities, and a number of ASA members are making significant contributions. In climate change studies, our members have been contributing to IPCC reports, to studies by the National Academies, to congressional testimony, and to policy development. Statisticians are working worldwide and with other disciplines to understand climate change and to develop sustainable solutions to provide a better environment for future generations. Developing a climate science workforce that is “skilled, educated, and climate-savvy” is a priority at some of our funding agencies, and I anticipate more of our members contributing to climate change education.

Statisticians, biostatisticians, and bioinformaticians are working in drug discovery, gene therapy, and health-informatics to provide better health care for everyone in the future. This month, some members are testifying on Capitol Hill on the health impacts of climate change. ASA members from all three sectors are engaged in solving such important challenges.

Climate modeling, drug discovery, genomics, and health informatics all deal with large data sets containing many variables. A very important area where statisticians are taking the lead is in solving problems related to such large data sets. “Data deluge,” “data tsunami,” “big data,” and “massive data” are some of the names used to characterize the astronomical amount of data that are being collected daily. The February 25, 2010, Economist magazine ran a special report on managing information. In the article titled “The data deluge,” it predicts that we generate about 1,200 exabytes (billion gigabytes) of data this year alone. Data warehousing, retrieving, and mining important information out of the large data sets pose many challenges for the future.

Data from multiple sources are common as well. However, we all know that more data does not necessarily imply better information. Extracting valuable information (gold) from the mud of data requires statistical, computational, and analytical skills. To quote from the article titled “Data, data everywhere” in the same issue of the Economist, “A new kind of professional has emerged, the data scientist, who combines the skills of software programmer, statistician, and storyteller/artist to extract the nuggets of gold hidden under mountains of data.”

Are we training newer statisticians with appropriate analytical, computational, and communication skills as well as new measurement theory and applications? At the current rate of training, there will be a shortage of graduates with such skills in the near future. Federal agencies like the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and Department of Defense are investing in such training through workforce development and research grants. Many successful corporations in private industry like SAS and IBM are also investing in such training. With such partnerships among the three sectors of the ASA—academia, industry, and government—I am very optimistic that statisticians will continue to contribute in the important arena of analytics and computational training.

As a BASF commercial says, “We may not build bridges, but we make them safer.” I believe that every good innovation has a statistician behind it. Many of you are advancing the science behind the scenes. We don’t have to be a lurking variable. Be a proud statistician and brag about our contributions, whether in agriculture, energy, environment, health, and even wealth. Cheers!

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