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SPA Committee Seeks Input, Feedback

1 June 2015 No Comment

The ASA has a longstanding interest in promoting the use of sound statistical methods to improve public policy. One of the association’s main advisory groups for such issues is the Scientific and Public Affairs (SPA) Committee. Its charge includes the following:

  • Consider public policy issues that affect the statistical community or to which statisticians can contribute
    Recommend policies to the ASA Board of Directors
  • Serve as a liaison between the ASA and other statistical experts, professional and governmental organizations, and the media

The SPA Committee is committed to promoting statistical science in policymaking, and members are keen to hear from ASA members about policy issues relevant to its charge.

A key activity of the SPA Committee is to help the ASA Board respond to emerging policy issues. A case in point is the committee’s contribution to the ASA’s letter to Congress on what has been commonly referred to as the Secret Science bill. This bill proposed that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency be prohibited from implementing policies unless all data and analytical methods are open to the public for review. Members of the SPA Committee read through the draft language, identified its strengths and weaknesses, and worked with ASA Director of Science Policy Steve Pierson to draft a letter that the ASA leadership could send to Congress. Concerns in the letter focused on potential threats to data confidentiality posed by imprecise language in the bill and possible repercussions for the EPA’s ability to make evidence-based policy; web search “Secret Science ASA.”

The committee also has advised the ASA on its board statements concerning the most-pressing and highest-profile policy concerns to our profession, including the proposed banning of the book How to Lie with Statistics in statistical training in the Veterans Administration, the qualifications for instructors of statistics courses, the creation of the National Institute of Finance, and the use of “value-added” models in the evaluation of educators.

The committee is following a variety of policy issues with statistical relevance, including voter identification legislation and its disproportionate impact on voting, data-based Supreme Court cases, and governmental regulations involving statistical agencies.

The SPA Committee also promotes interest in statistical methods in public policy within the association. It runs a poster competition at JSM, awarding prizes for posters that best demonstrate the significance of statistics to society. Committee members also organize invited sessions at JSM, including the recent sessions Statistics and the Supreme Court and Statistical Science and the President’s BRAIN Initiative. Committee members have helped secondary school statistics classes run post-election surveys, with the goal of teaching students the power of random sampling, the benefits of objective data analysis in claims about voter identification laws, and the importance of voting.

While the committee keeps up with many policy issues, members are undoubtedly unaware of many that potentially fall within the committee’s charge. Thus, the committee encourages ASA members to bring important issues to its attention and welcomes ideas for activities that promote statistical methods in public policy. Contact the current committee chair, Jerry Reiter, at jerry@stat.duke.edu or vice-chair, Dan McCaffrey, at dmccaffrey@ets.org.

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