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Message from the Chair

1 January 2011 No Comment
Russ Lenth, The University of Iowa

I want to thank the members of SPES for placing their trust in me. It is a real honor to have served this past year as the chair of SPES, which is one of the oldest ASA sections and one with a distinguished history. I especially want to thank my fellow officers—they are the ones who did the real work—George Ostrouchov and Kary Myers for all they did for JSM programs; Greg Piepel for liaising with the Council of Sections; Jim Rutherford, Michelle Zeisset, Melissa Ziegler, and Randy Tobias for diligent work on various communications activities; Peter Hovey, Roshan Vengazhiyil, Ted Allen, Tena Katsaounis, Ray Lam, Ken Goldberg, Kerby Shedden, Jennifer Golek, Mary Leitnaker, Walt Morgan, Scott Grimshaw, Jeff Luner, and Alison Rajakumar for myriad other SPES activities; Phil Scinto for excellent nomination and recruiting efforts; Stephanie Pickle for her care and patience in recording meetings and managing budgets; and Tom Loughin, who is a really hard act to follow, for being so helpful and answering all my questions.

The year has gone by quickly. At first, I was somewhat at a loss for words to describe the end of it all, but, clearly, what is most important are the benefits of SPES membership. In case you want a roadmap, the key themes discussed here are passion, nouns and verbs, and making a difference.


Longtime SPES member Rob Easterling contributed an article to the February 2010 issue of The American Statistician, titled “Passion-Driven Statistics.” It’s a great read; it explores why people sometimes turn up their noses at statisticians and statistics courses. One root cause is that some courses, teachers, and textbooks are really bad news; they treat statistics as math, applications as afterthoughts, and present examples that lack meaning (or are downright stupid). He defines passion as focusing on meaningful applications, where people can see that the focus is on important problems and the math is needed to serve that end, not the other way around.

Nouns and Verbs

In his article, Easterling quotes Carl Marshall, who said that “the nice thing about statistics is that the nouns may change, but the verbs stay the same.” The idea here is that we often do (a verb) similar things with data, regardless of the context (a noun). But, it is the nouns that matter to people and inspire passion. Residual diagnostics are important to us, but the production-line manager doesn’t really care; she wants to know why some of the cookies they make are crumbled by the time they arrive on the supermarket shelf. Cookies are serious nouns!

Making a Difference

It was my pleasure to attend a panel session at JSM organized by Martha Gardner in honor of Gerry Hahn that featured Bill Parr, Ron Snee, Geoff Vining, and Roger Hoerl. (Okay, I confess this was a Q&P-sponsored session, but it is a great section, too.) The main topic was statistical engineering—the idea that statistical methods can be viewed as a list of parts to be assembled into systems that are useful for solving the kinds of hard problems that come up in our work, in much the same way an engineer can design a machine from available physical parts. I think that is a fascinating idea, and, as an educator, it should inform the way I teach. But I digress. In the discussion, the point was made that, as statisticians and team members, we should be mindful of our responsibility to make the world a better place. While we have reveled recently in being characterized by the Google CEO as having the sexiest job out there, the underlying context of that quotation has to do with marketing.

So what does this have to do with SPES membership? Well, lots. For one thing, maybe we should reserve the “sexiness” trophy for achievements that make a real difference. And in that regard, SPES-iness is sexiness, because SPES members tend to work in vital areas. I do not think marketing is inherently bad, but it cannot make the world a better place by itself. To do that, it has to promote a world-changing product or service. SPES people can, and often do, contribute their talents to developing world-changing products and services.

I also point out that SPES is an ASA section organized around nouns—physical and engineering sciences—whereas many other sections (nonparametrics, survey methodology, etc.) are verb based. I do not mean to put down those other sections, but the noun-based sections are where the passion lies, at least from the outside world’s point of view. We do a pretty good job of highlighting those nouns and showing what verbs are best. We are closely connected with one of the best noun-based journals, Technometrics (in which an application is a stated requirement for publication of any article), and we co-sponsor two outstanding noun-based conferences (the Fall Technical Conference and Spring Research Conference), as well as offer excellent noun-based technical sessions at the Joint Statistical Meetings.

Another way we spread passion is through our Marquardt Industrial Speakers program. This, in my view, is the most important SPES effort in terms of protecting our future. It provides a way for universities to arrange for practicing statisticians in industry or government to come to campuses and talk to students. It is valuable to students and it can attract their professors’ attention to important application-based research possibilities. Our incoming Marquardt chair is Jennifer Van Mullekom, who was our fearless section leader in 2007. I know she’ll do a terrific job. If you are interested in arranging for an industrial speaker or offering to speak, contact Van Mullekom at jennifer.h.van-mullekom@usa.dupont.com.

In spite of the previous emphasis on nouns, I want to close with three verbs: join, recruit, and involve yourself. There are more organizations, journals, and sections out there competing for our interest and involvement. Honestly, however, few bring together a critical mass of highly talented, passionate statisticians as does the ASA Section on Statistics in Physical and Engineering Sciences.

If you are not already a SPES member and you share our passion, then please join (PDF download). If you are a SPES member, please keep your eye out for potential SPES members. Tell them about all the great conferences, programs, and journals we sponsor and recruit them as new SPES members. Finally, consider volunteering to help with these efforts. I guarantee you will find it professionally fulfilling and you’ll get to know some excellent individuals along the way. You may contact my successor, Scinto, at Phil.Scinto@lubrizol.com with questions or comments.

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