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A Message from the Chair

1 April 2011 No Comment
David Marker, ASA Scientific and Public Affairs Committee Past Chair

I recently completed a six-year term as chair of the ASA Scientific and Public Affairs Advisory Committee (SPA); it is fascinating to look at how far our organization has moved over this time.

Shortly after I was appointed, committee members discussed whether Intelligent Design (ID) should be taught in science classrooms. There was a strong consensus that this was wrong, but it took a while to understand what our statistical objections were. We focused on the fact that ID could not be tested through the scientific method and thus didn’t belong in a science class. Unlike what its proponents argued, it was not “a theory just like the theory of evolution.” The SPA urged the ASA Board of Directors to endorse the position taken by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, which argues against teaching ID in classrooms.

Board members overwhelming agreed this would be good to do, but it wasn’t clear to some whether the board could do it, since the ASA’s bylaws prevent actions that are political or partisan. The board did take the position, but, more importantly, it began the process that eliminated the political restriction. While the ASA should not get involved in partisan activities, almost anything can be construed as political. This change has allowed the ASA to become more involved in issues of science and public policy.

Each of the ASA presidents under which I have served has strongly supported ASA involvement in policy, believing statisticians are uniquely qualified to bring clarity to controversies a democracy must address. For two years, there was a presidential science policy task force, chaired by Ginny de Wolf, that helped clarify how we could be better advocates for statistics. Members of the task force recognized that there is science for policy (e.g., election reform, climate change) and policy for science (e.g., ID, funding for NSF and NIH) and suggested hiring a director of science policy. Steve Pierson was hired as that director and has made great changes in what the ASA does in this arena.

With the board’s encouragement, SPA has researched a series of issues and brought forward a number of action items. A workshop was funded and organized to expand statisticians’ interaction with climate scientists. This led to a series of ASA Board statements, increased participation by statisticians in research and explaining climate issues on Capitol Hill, and creation of the Climate Change Policy Advisory Committee. Statisticians were among those representing a range of scientific organizations briefing staffers of the new Congress on the facts of this important issue.

We have been actively working with fair-election activists, computer security specialists, and election officials to improve the accuracy of elections and efficiency of post-election audits. We worked with ASA confidentiality and ethics committees on a statement about the boundaries of appropriate use of data mining techniques.

In 2008, Pierson organized the ASA’s first advocacy day, with more than 60 meetings with congressional staffers in conjunction with JSM in Washington, DC. These connections have opened up communication opportunities for a series of recent legislation, from financial reform to the independence of the U.S. Census Bureau to increasing statistical literacy. To prepare for these meetings, the ASA began developing a series of one-page documents, called “Statistical Significance,” that describe the importance of statistics to different fields. These are now being used by graduate schools, high-school AP Statistics teachers, and many others to explain the importance of statistics.

Members of the ASA Board now speak to the great debates that confront us. They focus on unique statistical perspectives, but are not afraid to be heard. Recently, the ASA was able to organize more than a dozen professional organizations to support action in Congress in fewer than 24 hours.

There are many more issues to address. I know SPA will continue to work hard to identify how statisticians can affect policy and work with the ASA Board to bring this to reality. I encourage everyone who knows of topics the ASA should address to contact members of the SPA, now chaired by Clyde Tucker. For a taste of these issues, come to our invited panel discussion during JSM 2011, where we will discuss the measurement issues involved in Race to the Top, financial reform legislation, economic statistics, and greenhouse gas measurement. This will be followed by an invited session on statistics and climate change.

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