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Data Is My Job: Four ASA Members Share Career Insights

Sun, 04/01/2018 - 7:00am
Career opportunities are limitless with a degree in statistics or data science. To celebrate Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month (#mathaware), we highlight four ASA members who have used their statistics skills and imaginations to snag sweet jobs. Who Are These People?
Janet McDougall is the founder and president of McDougall Scientific consulting firm.

Rob Santos is the chief methodologist and director of the Statistical Methods Group at the Urban Institute.

Yihui Xie is a data scientist and software engineer at RStudio, Inc.

Nancy Potok is the chief statistician of the United States. What do you during a typical day at work?

McDougall: Like most professionals/managers, there is not really a typical day, but there are tasks you regularly perform. I balance managing the company with keeping up as a statistician and working with clients.

Email. Updates on ongoing projects (sometimes resolving issues); answering clients’ questions; reaching out to potential clients or collaborators; setting up meetings; keeping up on industry changes, regulations, and statistics by being on mailing lists and reviewing the content

Meetings. Both internal—project management, product development, finance, HR, marketing—and external—going to meet with clients offsite or having teleconferences with them

Research. New statistical methods, therapeutic areas, regulations—usually as part of a project or a work-up for bidding on the project

Training. Finding, organizing, and attending webinars in statistics, data management, etc.; also having statistical discussions with staff about design and analysis issues

The one big omission is programming. I don’t meet our standards for a programmer—because of all the other distractions—and I do miss that part of the job.

Santos: On any given day, I will be overseeing policy research projects in diverse topics like housing discrimination, refugee resettlement, urban community attachment, food insecurity, driving travel behavior, client feedback loops, and firefighter safety and risk assessment, as well as attending to internal administrative projects like IRB reviews, advancing diversity/inclusion and community engagement research methods, and chairing institutional awards committee deliberations (this is but a portion of my current portfolio).

Xie: I answer software questions from various channels (StackOverflow, GitHub, emails, etc.) and write code, documentation, and books. I have been trying to publish one book a year since 2015, and—this year—I’m working on my fourth book.

Potok: There is no typical day—every day is different. A lot of my job involves external relationships with stakeholders, data users, and the US statistical agencies. As a result, I may be out of my office for the greater part of the day meeting with people, speaking at conferences or other events, attending workshops, or strategizing with the statistical agency heads on our priority work areas. On other days, I am mostly in my office meeting with my small staff and guiding their activities. Some days, I brief the policy officials at the Office of Management and Budget on high-priority decisions that need to be made or documents that need to be cleared. If I am really lucky, I get to catch up on things I should be reading once in a while.

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We want to see you sharing your cool data jobs with future statisticians and data scientists. Snap a selfie with our #CelebrateStatistics or #CelebrateDataScience printable posters, post them on social media, and tag @AmstatNews. Print the main poster too! How did you end up in your current position?

McDougall: By chance. I started freelance work in the pharmaceutical industry after working at one company for about four years. Through contacts in the industry, the workload grew and I brought others onboard, then had to move the business out of my home and into a leased office. Taking on leases, it seemed appropriate to incorporate—so I did and, as the owner, became the de facto president.

For the next couple of years, I kept my title as statistician, as that was what I was proud to be. When a future client asked if this was my father’s business, I recognized I had to take the business—and my image—more seriously and adopted the title of president. I kept the title and have grown into the position, learning to be more of a strategic thinker and planner, making important and tough decisions, mentoring, delegating—even my beloved programming—to the growing staff, dealing with all the financial administrative tasks.

I was lucky to find good business coaches along the way who not only guided me, but also two other staff members (also statisticians) to form a management team. My role as senior statistician, where I keep abreast of the developing statistical trends and advise on design and analysis, is still what gives me the greatest pleasure.

Santos: Through a journey-pursuing opportunity. I spent much of my career in leadership positions trying to promote the most rigorous research in university-based survey research centers at Temple University, University of Michigan, and The University of Chicago. I finally realized I wanted to be closer to the action of putting research results to use for the betterment of society and landed at the Urban Institute, a public policy research think tank.

I then was lured back to my home state of Texas (Austin) to co-own a social science research firm, but we sold the firm after six years of amazing growth and interesting projects.

And then I returned to Urban Institute to resume my passion for conducting research for the public good. And this is where I have been the past 11 years.

I enjoy most the ability to play in everyone’s tent, be it justice policy, immigration, housing, hunger issues, health, education, infrastructure, program evaluation, you name it. The past decade has been the most rewarding and fulfilling period career-wise in my life.

Xie: I wrote an R package named “knitr” in late 2011, which caught the attention of our current CEO. I met him in 2012 for the first time and collaborated on a few talks, including a keynote at the useR! conference in 2012. We had a brief phone call in 2013, when I was about to look for a job. He basically said “Yes,” and that’s it.

I’m a statistician by training, but I love programming more than statistics. Sorry! I probably should not have said that here. Anyway, I write software primarily for statisticians and data analysts.

Potok: The short, technically correct answer is that I applied for it on and was selected through the federal government’s merit selection process. Of course, that was after a long and varied career that spanned two tours at the US Census Bureau (first as the principal associate director and CFO and the second as the deputy director and COO); working in the private sector doing social science research and consulting; and—at various times—holding other federal positions, including deputy undersecretary for economic affairs at the Department of Commerce. I discovered I had a real passion for strategically managing data and the people who create and disseminate data to inform major policy questions and provide high-quality information that could change peoples’ lives for the better.

What did you want to be when you were 12?

McDougall: A scientist. I got my first chemistry set when I was around eight or nine years old and loved the sense of wonder and discovery.

Santos: I totally wanted to be a math professor. I loved everything there was about mathematics and majored in math for my BA. But when it came time to think about graduate school, my counseling professor insisted I consider a more applied area—statistics—so I could always have a great job. Time has shown he certainly steered me well.

Xie: I just wanted to study super hard and obtain the highest possible educational degree, which was a “postdoc” according to what people in my village told me when I was a boy. I probably also wanted to be a scientist. Now some people call me “data scientist,” which is not what I intended to be when I was 12; I had no clue about statistics until I went to college. To a child, a scientist who plays with colorful chemicals looks like more fun. Playing with data is also fun, although it is a little more abstract.

Potok: My career goal at age 12 was to be a librarian. I loved reading, doing research, and uncovering new and interesting information. One of my favorite activities at that age was to pick up a Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia, open it to a random page, and just start reading. Of course, at age 13, I discovered boys and my career ambition shifted quickly to wanting to be a go-go dancer for a rock band. It’s been an interesting ride since then.

What career advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

McDougall: Keep learning—and not just in your narrow discipline. I still over-prepare for meetings and discussions about protocol development and analyses—therapeutic areas, publications for the disease or the design—also just general trends in our society. By reading widely, the doors to serendipity open more frequently and you get wonderful insights into a problem or an opportunity that you might miss otherwise. You ‘see’ things other people miss, because your mind has been opened to different possibilities.

Santos: I’d say pursue your passions, keep your options open, have fun, and always challenge yourself beyond your self-perceived limitations. Life’s all about the journey, not the destination. A great career and a good, fulfilling life can be had by heeding those few words.

Xie: Try more often to do things you don’t like but are important at the same time. It is easy to do things you like, but in the real world, there is no guarantee you will like all tasks assigned to you. Don’t be afraid of the pain from challenges. If you don’t feel the pain in tackling a challenge, it basically means you are losing the chance to learn more things and grow up.

Potok: Conquer your fear of taking big risks to follow your dreams—at 20 years old, there is plenty of time to learn from your mistakes and discover both what you are great at and what makes you happy.

Symposium on Data Science and Statistics Promises Solid Program, Networking

Sun, 04/01/2018 - 7:00am

Yasmin H. Said is the 2018 SDSS Program Chair. She holds a PhD in computational statistics. Based on her research on ecological alcohol systems, she was awarded patent 7,800,616, Policy Analysis and Action Decision Tool. She was a visiting fellow at the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cambridge in England. She was a founding co-editor-in-chief of WIRES: Computational Statistics, a Wiley journal. She is an elected member of both the Research Society on Alcoholism and International Statistical Institute.

The ASA Symposium on Data Science and Statistics (SDSS) is designed for data scientists, computer scientists, and statisticians who analyze and visualize complex data. The 2018 symposium returns to Reston, Virginia, the site of the original 1988 symposium held under the newly incorporated Interface Foundation of North America (IFNA). The SDSS series, beginning this May, is a joint collaboration of the ASA, assuming responsibility for administrative management, and the Interface Foundation, retaining responsibility for the direction and intellectual focus. 

The SDSS program offers short courses, concurrent sessions, electronic poster sessions, exhibits, and many opportunities for networking. Emery N. Brown, a well-known scholar with a medical focus on anesthesiology and neuroscience, will give the keynote address: “Uncovering the Mechanisms of General Anesthesia: Where Neuroscience Meets Statistics.”

The plenary talks will feature David Scott from Rice University, David Brillinger from the University of California at Berkeley, Jerome Friedman from Stanford University, and Adalbert Wilhelm from Jacobs University in Germany.

The invited program includes session tracks on data science, data visualization, machine learning, computational statistics, computing science, and applications and features well-known scholars such as Leland Wilkinson, Roy Welch, Wayne Oldford, Edward George, William Cleveland, David Banks, Michael Trosset, Menas Kafatos, Nozer Singpurwalla, Lynne Billard, Carey Priebe, Douglas Nychka, Kirk Borne, and Claudio Cioffi-Revilla. In addition, there will be a number of contributed and electronic poster sessions. In total, there will be approximately 300 presentations split nearly equally between invited and contributed talks, as well as poster sessions spanning an array of topics.

A key feature of SDSS is a collection of short courses. These short courses will focus on the latest software tools, technologies, and methodologies for data science—including the Hadoop, R, and Spark ecosystems—and give participants hands-on experience. A number of high-profile technology companies will present these short courses, as well as invited talks, including Cloudera, Databricks, Domino,, IBM, Microsoft, RStudio, and SAS.

There will be many opportunities for networking and social interaction with ample breaks, continental breakfasts on Thursday through Saturday, an opening mixer on Wednesday, and a symposium banquet on Thursday. Barry Nussbaum, 2017 ASA president, will be the banquet speaker, giving a light-hearted talk titled, “I Never Met a Datum I Didn’t Like.”

 The 2018 SDSS is being held in honor of Edward Wegman, the founder and a key person in IFNA, serving as treasurer for some 30 years. He was the founding chair of the statistics department at George Mason University and developed both the MS in statistical science and PhD in computational science and informatics there. He has been dissertation director for 44 doctoral students, with seven additional students in candidacy. After a 32-year career at George Mason, Wegman will retire at the end of May as professor emeritus. He earned his PhD in May 1968 from the University of Iowa. Several sessions in this first SDSS are dedicated to his contributions to the profession. 


Longtime Members Offer Wisdom

Sun, 04/01/2018 - 7:00am
We interviewed a few longtime members to find out why they remain members of the ASA and how they have benefited from being a member. Here is what they had to say:

Janet Myhre

Member for more than 50 years

Being a mathematical applied statistician has allowed me to have a career in which I am continuously learning, always involved in problem solving, and never bored. My first interest in statistics occurred as a graduate student at the University of Washington. Z. W. Birnbaum was instrumental in founding my interest in probability and mathematical statistics.

One of my careers has been as a professor of mathematics at the Claremont Colleges and University. My teaching involved instructing courses in probability, theoretical and applied statistics, problem solving, data analysis, and statistical thinking for engineers. Other activities included founding the Reed Institute for Applied Statistics. This institute funded summer research for undergraduates and facilitated the process of obtaining funding for courses in applied statistics. In these courses, problems were elicited from government and business, which involved data and could be solved using applied statistics. A course in applied statistics was designed to analyze one of these problems during a semester course. Students received course credit and provided the client with written and oral reports.

My second career, concurrent with my first career and still active, has been as a statistical consultant to the US Navy. This career has been extremely rewarding. The problems to be solved are often complex and require additional theory. The solutions are made possible by teamwork with exceptionally well-informed and dedicated naval officers, engineers, and scientists.

How has your professional and/or personal life been affected by being a member of the ASA?

The ASA has helped my professional life by providing statistical problem solving information both online and in professional meetings. My years as an associate editor of Technometrics and later as chair of the Committee for Careers in Statistics were both informative and rewarding.

Is there anything you wish someone had told you when you embarked upon your career that you would like to tell others now? 

One wants to find a career where the work is so enjoyable you never want to stop, where being involved in your work is one of the most rewarding things you do.

Betty Skipper

Member since 1963

I majored in mathematics at Oberlin College, and I was the first in my family to graduate from college.

During my senior year in college, I saw an announcement on a bulletin board about a biostatistics graduate program at Western Reserve University (WRU). A professor from that program came to campus that afternoon to talk to students. I had never heard of biostatistics. It was explained as an opportunity to combine mathematics and science. The coursework consisted of two years of statistics at Iowa State University (ISU) and the first year of medical school at WRU. I applied and received a pre-doctoral fellowship.

As I was finishing my dissertation, a professor at WRU told me he was moving to a new medical school at the University of New Mexico (UNM) and would be hiring biostatisticians. I applied, intending to move back to the Midwest in two years. Forty-eight years later, I retired as a tenured professor from UNM and now work part time. I met my late husband in Albuquerque and have two grown children and four grandchildren.

I have spent my career as an applied biostatistician, collaborating with students and health professional colleagues, as well as teaching biostatistics courses. I am particularly interested in mentoring students and junior faculty and teaching statistical concepts to health professionals who are not statisticians. My combined training in statistics and medical sciences has been an important asset. Over the years, I have seen major changes in statistical practice—from mechanical calculators and computer punch cards to modern computers and statistical software.

Although I didn’t start with specific plans for this career, it has been a rewarding career. I have been privileged to work with many students and faculty colleagues at the University of New Mexico.

How has your professional and/or personal life been affected by being a member of the ASA?

Continuing education through local chapter meetings, publications, and short courses.

What or who inspired you to become a statistician?

There was really no one who inspired me to become a statistician. As I mentioned in the career summary, I saw an announcement on a college bulletin board and decided to apply without really knowing much about it.

Dennis Boos

Member since 1974

How has your professional and/or personal life been affected by being a member of the ASA?

The ASA has been the central professional organization in my career. I have attended most JSMs over the last 40 years. In fact, we often made the JSM a family vacation. (My children loved the hotels when they were young!) I have been involved in a number of committees and have appreciated the organizational professionalism of the ASA. Of course, JASA and TAS have been important journals for me, and I still get hard copies.

What or who inspired you to become a statistician?

In the summer of 1973, I visited the department of statistics at Florida State looking for a career change. My undergraduate degree was in physics, but I had become disillusioned with the heavy dependence of physics on the defense industry for funding. I first talked to a math professor friend about applied math, but he suggested walking down the hall and talking to someone in statistics. (He saw the future!) So, the associate head, Fred Leysieffer, told me about statistics—I had no clue about the field—and I applied to graduate school soon after.

Is there anything you wish someone had told you when you embarked upon your career that you would like to tell others now?

I guess it would have been nice for me to understand the entrepreneurial nature of an academic career. As a junior, I wasn’t proactive enough in making connections with scientists and other statisticians. Fortunately, North Carolina State is a warm and nurturing environment for young faculty.

Calvin Zippin

Member since 1947

In 1947, upon graduation from SUNY-Albany with majors in biology and mathematics and a course in statistics, I was hired by the Sterling-Winthrop Research Institute—the research arm of a large pharmaceutical firm—to do a variety of chores, including statistical analysis of laboratory and clinical data. That same year, I joined the Albany Chapter of the ASA. Three years later, with a full tuition scholarship, I began graduate work in biostatistics at Johns Hopkins under the revered William G. Cochran.

With my ScD degree in hand, I accepted a faculty position in the school of public health at the University of California, Berkeley in 1953 and transferred in 1955 to the school of medicine in San Francisco (UCSF) with appointments in the Cancer Research Institute and the department of preventive medicine. In addition to teaching and research, I served as the campus’ only consulting biostatistician. This resulted in involvement in a great variety of fascinating research areas. I continued to be active with the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the ASA.

As head of the UCSF cancer registry and with ties to state and national cancer data systems, my work became focused on the biometry and epidemiology of cancer. Long-term continuing support from the National Cancer Institute fueled my research and led to travel throughout the world and service on national and international committees.

Some of the ways in which I was further rewarded was election to fellowship in the ASA, service as president of the Western North American Region of the Biometric Society, membership in COPSS, and receipt of a lifetime achievement and leadership award from the National Cancer Institute. I am currently professor emeritus of epidemiology in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF.

How has your professional and/or personal life been affected by being a member of the ASA?

Attending ASA meetings in the early days brought me in contact with persons with similar and diverse interests within statistics, and subject matter talks helped me try to keep current on developments within the field.

Membership in the ASA provided much of the basic grounding for my career. Rather than cite an individual experience, I will list several that stand out in my memory:

  • Four trips to the Soviet Union during the Cold War for an international cancer congress and as part of a US-USSR collaborative project on breast cancer
  • Participation in an international World Health Organization meeting on the importance of teaching statistics to medical students held in the unusual location of Karachi, Pakistan
  • Meeting with staff of the Atom Bomb Casualty Commission in Hiroshima, Japan, while doing research on late effects of radiation

At the request of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I interviewed in 1978 in Buenos Aires mothers of missing abductees (some scientists) during the so-called “dirty war” in Argentina. 

What or who inspired you to become a statistician?

I credit Lloyd C. Miller, my boss at the Sterling-Winthrop Research Institute, with inspiring me to go into biostatistics. Although he was primarily a pharmacologist, he had worked with Chester Bliss of Yale on bioassay and became aware of the critical importance of statistical methodology in research. He went on to become director of revision of the United States Pharmacopoeia for 20 years. His encouragement led to my going on to graduate work in biostatistics.

Is there anything you wish someone had told you when you embarked upon your career that you would like to tell others now? 

For anyone interested in concentrating on an applied area of statistics, I would emphasize the importance of learning as much about the subject matter of that field as well as that of statistics.

I was interested in biology and the health sciences. At the time of my graduate work at Johns Hopkins, we were required to take courses comprising most of the first two years of the medical curriculum in addition to work in biostatistics. For me, this was a blessing.

Also, I would say a career in statistics can open itself to the most exciting and unexpected avenues of fulfillment. Keep your sights high. Expect the unexpected!

Steve Ascher

Member since 1974

I earned my PhD in 1978 from SUNY at Buffalo. My first job was as an assistant professor at Temple University (1978–1983). At Temple, I revived the undergraduate major in statistics, which had been dormant for many years.

In 1983, I decided to go into industry and joined McNeil Pharmaceutical as a statistician. It was there that I learned about the complexities of drug development and how incredibly complex it is to get a new drug on the market. From 1993–1999, I worked at IBRD and Covance (two contract research organizations (CROs)). I received my first managerial experience at both organizations as I headed two small statistics groups.

Working on both the client side and the contractor side gave me a better understanding of how to build beneficial relationships between clients and CROs. I returned to Johnson & Johnson (Janssen) in 2000 to build a phase 4 statistics/programming/data management group.

My CRO experience was helpful, as our business model at Janssen was to use CROs. While at Janssen, my group supported numerous world-wide neuroscience trials. We also assisted in writing posters, abstracts, and manuscripts. In addition, I co-founded a mentoring program for J&J statisticians and programmers. During my J&J tenure, I became involved with the ASA New Jersey Chapter and served as president for four years and vice president for two years. I am currently secretary. We sponsor workshops, webinars, and career days for statistic graduate students and high-school students.

I retired in May of 2016 and still keep active with the ASA New Jersey Chapter and review papers for two veterinary journals and one sports in statistics journal. In addition, I do horse show announcing and keep busy with my sports memorabilia collection.

How has your professional and/or personal life been affected by being a member of the ASA?

Being a member has allowed me to keep up with the latest advances in statistics through subscribing to journals, belonging to various chapters and sections, and attending events for knowledge and networking. I have recommended membership to students and colleagues throughout my career.

Will you share an experience that stands out to you regarding your ASA membership?

What stands out for me is getting more involved in the ASA New Jersey Chapter. I have been president (four years), vice president (two years), and am currently secretary. I have gotten to work with my wonderful and dedicated officers and have always been very appreciative that all of the speakers we have had at various events do this for no financial gain. The volunteer spirit and giving back to the statistics community is alive and thriving! Through the New Jersey Chapter, I have also gotten involved in career days for both statistics graduate students and high-school students. The future of our profession lies with them.

What or who inspired you to become a statistician?

I was good at math growing up and, as a baseball fan, wondered how baseball statistics were computed. Whereas many of my friends wanted to be doctors, lawyers, etc., I wanted to be the statistician for the New York Mets. When I started my undergraduate studies at SUNY at Buffalo in 1970, I was a math major. A friend thought I might like to take a statistics course as a way to apply math. I did and earned my BA in math/stat in 1974, my MS in statistics in 1976, and my PhD in statistics in 1978—all from SUNY at Buffalo.

Is there anything you wish someone had told you when you embarked upon your career that you would like to tell others now? 

The importance of written and oral communications. I stress this when I give presentations at career days. Today, communications all too often are in tweets, emails, Instagram, etc., where people “talk” in shorthand (e.g., LOL, UR, etc.). The art of face-to-face communication seems to be fading. As I learned during my career, one needs to be able to present findings to people in a clear and concise manner. Statisticians do not just compute p-values!

The Value of CSP 2018

Sun, 04/01/2018 - 7:00am
Photo by Sara Davidson/ASA CSP 2018 attendees introduce themselves to one another at the ice-breaker during the keynote address on February 16. Photo by Sara Davidson/ASA ASA President Lisa LaVange gives the keynote address at CSP 2018 February 16. ASA photo Attendees chat at the CSP 2018 Opening Mixer. ASA Photo Refreshment breaks offer another opportunity to meet other attendees. ASA Photo Tania Patrao presents a poster at CSP 2018. Photo by Meg Ruyle/ASA Theresa Henle, Brianna Heggeseth, and Christina Knudson get acquainted at the CSP 2018 Opening Mixer. Photo by Sara Davidson/ASA Attendees converse during a short course at CSP 2018.
Conference focuses on people and interactions, not just talks and presentations Jean V. Adams, CSP 2018 Steering Committee Chair

The 7th annual Conference on Statistical Practice was held in Portland, Oregon, Feb 15–17. There were talks, short courses, posters, and blah, blah, blah. You’ve been to conferences. You know what they’re about. Watching and listening to presentations. Right?


Consider the TED talks. They are all available online for free. Yet people spend thousands, even tens of thousands, of dollars to attend the TED conference in person. Why?

The people.

A conference is all about the people. The word conference comes from the Latin word conferre, which means “to bring together.” To bring people together, you need to have some enticement. The Conference on Statistical Practice does this by inviting abstracts from potential speakers and instructors and selecting only the best for inclusion in the program. But, putting people in the same place at the same time is just the first hurdle. What’s the second?

Connecting them.

The value is in the interactions. To encourage people to interact with each other, you need to create a safe space and remove barriers to communication. The Conference on Statistical Practice focuses on this second hurdle to ensure attendees get the most out of the conference. We limit attendance to keep the conference small. We keep the meeting rooms close to the shared space to encourage mixing. We include an ice-breaker at the keynote. We encourage folks to gather together for meals. We connect mentors and mentees.

Our focus on people and interactions was effective. Just listen to what attendees had to say about the 2018 Conference on Statistical Practice:

“I was surprised by how much people are using this meeting to connect with each other, even beyond the scheduled events. A lot of small professional networks (formal and informal) were taking advantage of the opportunity.”

“I met a woman who started graduate school to get a degree in biostatistics. She was an opera singer before this! I think she wants to bring her creativity to statistics.”

“It was really interesting to meet people with such diverse backgrounds and at different stages in their careers and studies.”

Many thanks to ASA President Lisa LaVange, who kicked off the meeting with her keynote address, “Reflections on Career Opportunities and Leadership in Statistics.” LaVange also led a panel session on her #LeadWithStatistics initiative to establish a leadership institute at the ASA.

Interact at next year’s Conference on Statistical Practice in New Orleans, February 14–16.

Climate Science Day Participants See Change of Tone on Capitol Hill

Sun, 04/01/2018 - 7:00am

Photo by Steve Pierson/ASA From left: The ASA’s 2018 Climate Science Day participants—Peter Bloomfield, Bo Li, Dorit Hammerling, and Leonard Smith—gather in front of the American Association for the Advancement of Science building. Photo courtesy of Carissa Bunge Bo Li with teammate Rachel Kirpes outside the Capitol Photo by Steve Pierson/ASA Leonard Smith meets with his representative, John Rutherford (R-FL). Photo courtesy of Julia Marsh Dorit Hammerling and her teammate, Matthew Hurteau, outside the office of Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM)

The ASA Advisory Committee on Climate Change Policy and the Section on Statistics and the Environment sent four statisticians to the eighth annual Climate Science Day (CSD) on Capitol Hill at the end of January. Peter Bloomfield, Dorit Hammerling, and Leonard Smith were return CSD participants, while Bo Li participated for the first time.

CSD’s purpose is to connect scientists with congressional lawmakers and their staffs to discuss climate science, a purpose that is quite broad considering the wide range of views and interests across the 50 states and 435 congressional districts. The scientists attended a series of briefings earlier in the day to prepare them for this range. The briefings included a discussion with a panel of Hill staffers, tips for Hill visits, strategies for communicating about climate science, a keynote speaker, and time for each team—two scientists of different disciplines and a science society staff person—to prepare specifically for their meetings. This year’s keynote speaker was Laura Helmuth, the health, science, and environment editor at The Washington Post.

With a goal for productive, engaging discussion, the request made to congressional offices in the past was to consult CSD participants or the sponsoring organizations when they had questions regarding climate science. This year, however, CSD participants were encouraged to focus on connecting the mainstream scientific view with current and potential future impacts of climate change in their districts for offices that have not yet acknowledged the scientific community’s view of climate change as, for example, was stated in the 2016 letter signed by 31 scientific organizations, including the ASA.

For offices whose views were more congruent with the mainstream scientific view, the discussions were about being a resource and the risks specific to the district/state.

The 19 2018 CSD participants—sponsored by 10 science associations—collectively had 70 meetings. As reported last year, participants again noted the changing tone of climate change discussions in many offices. Where once there was polite, but short and nonengaging discussions, there was more open discussion about the impacts of climate change in the district or state and even the political challenges.

Hammerling, who participated in her second CSD, also mentioned she enjoyed the interaction with other CSD scientists and the preparatory briefings. Li commented on the importance—as part of a scientist’s responsibility to society—of regular communication with policymakers and providing updates from the research community about new discoveries and developments.

Statisticians Leading with Justice for All

Sun, 04/01/2018 - 7:00am

In the past two issues of Amstat News, I have focused on building the ASA Leadership Institute. This month, I want to highlight another 2018 presidential initiative—expert witness training. The idea for such a program came from our membership.

Early in 2017, Executive Director Ron Wasserstein heard from several members about whether the ASA could help prepare consulting statisticians for service as expert witnesses in a trial or deposition. Around the same time, I had occasion to talk with a former University of North Carolina biostatistics student, Naomi Brownstein, and she described her interest in being an expert witness. Now a statistics faculty member at Florida State University, Naomi had been approached about serving in this capacity. So, Ron and I put our heads together to assess the need for this kind of training and came up with a proposal.

There are areas of the law that involve quantitative expertise. Ensuring there are qualified statistical professionals in the courtroom or otherwise involved with the legal process in those areas would improve the quality of the legal process and increase recognition of the important contributions of statistics and statisticians.

There are many leaders in our field who regularly step up to serve the courts on a variety of important topics, and our sister fields—such as mathematics—are also stepping up to contribute. Gerrymandering of legislative districts, for instance, is one topic that has drawn attention of late. Gerrymandering struck a chord with me, living in two states (Maryland and North Carolina) that have been accused of extreme partisan gerrymandering—but in opposite political directions. Other topics include investigations of Medicaid fraud by medical providers and using “risk-limiting audits” to detect problems with elections. These topics often end up in court, and statisticians should be prepared to chip in.

One aspect of the FDA’s mission to protect and promote the public health that I did not fully appreciate until working there was the need to ensure product claims made in labeling and advertising were accurate and did not mislead the public. Evaluating the evidence to determine whether product statements are misleading is the subject of FDA guidance documents, but these determinations often end up in court, where a company’s first amendment rights in making claims about a product are weighed against the agency’s need to ensure such claims do not mislead the public.

A recent example is the Federal Trade Commission’s suit against Quincy Bioscience that questioned the use of secondary analysis to support a claim about a treatment for memory loss after the trial failed on its primary endpoints. The FTC lost the claim, and no statisticians were involved as expert witnesses due to the nature of the suit, but statistical theory about inference in general and multiplicity in particular formed the basis of the FTC’s argument.

Given the interest in training among ASA members, requests for ASA’s assistance as expert witnesses from other parties, and my own interest in this topic, Ron and I presented our proposal for an expert witness training program to the board, and thus was born a presidential initiative.

Our vision is to develop a program that provides the general skills and knowledge a statistician should have to be an expert witness, as well as prepare participants to speak as an expert on at least one subject matter area. To this end, we formed a working group made up of leading statisticians Joseph L. Gastwirth, Mary W. Gray, Nicholas P. Jewell, and Rochelle E. Tractenberg and asked Kathy Ensor of Rice University to be the chair. The assembled team includes a lawyer and statisticians with courtroom experience.

I asked Kathy, as chair, to report on the deliberations of the working group to date, and here is what she had to say:

Leaders in our field have often provided expertise to the courts and Congress, many learning by experience. The objective of this training program for statistical expert witnesses is to help our community, especially those new to our profession, expedite the learning curve on how to best serve the courts as an expert statistician.

There were exciting suggestions for what should and should not be included in a training workshop. Although our experiences varied, several common themes emerged, including the following:

  • What it means to be an expert witness
  • What it means to be an expert statistical witness
  • Voicing a clear unbiased statistical opinion at all stages of the legal process
  • Ethical considerations as practicing professional statisticians
  • Common mistakes and pitfalls to avoid

The role our profession has played in the courts throughout history is laudable. The role of the expert statistician emerged strongly in the 1980s. As a young statistician, I recall reading with great enthusiasm the text “Statistics and the Law” by [Morris] DeGroot, [Stephen] Fienberg, and [Joseph] Kadane and then later Jay Kadane’s 2008 book, “Statistics in the Law: A Practitioner’s Guide, Cases, and Materials.” I guess this speaks to my love of statistics and its application, as I read the books with the deep immersion great novels require.

The vast array of areas in which statisticians interact with the courts simply boggles the mind—areas such as employment discrimination, DNA, medical practice, environmental issues, patent challenges, economic risk, and financial fraud.

The recent creation of the National Institute of Standards and Technology–supported Center for Statistics and Applications in Forensic Evidence (CSAFE) recognizes the important role statisticians play in forensic science and hence the legal system. The expert witness working group also noted emerging areas that include statistical and machine learning algorithms potentially guiding decisions of the courts and the criminal justice system. Equally as broad as the societal issues statisticians are asked to address are the areas of statistics in which statisticians serve as experts. And given the demand for our expertise, we as a committee were reminded that one important component to serving as an expert is knowing when to decline a request.

We are developing a training program with the following key goals in mind:

  • Quality – Develop a program that provides excellent training and meets, or even exceeds, the needs of our members
  • Impact – Develop a program that can reach a substantial number of people over time
  • Sustainability – Develop a program that can be offered regularly and support itself financially

An RFP for training program development will be announced, pending approval by the ASA Board. The general goal is to begin the program either in the fall of 2018 or spring of 2019. Once developed, this program will become part of the ASA Leadership Institute, offered at a frequency deemed helpful to our community.

My thanks go to Kathy and her team for the work accomplished so far, and I look forward to seeing this program roll out in the coming months. I believe the program will be a valuable resource to ASA members, and we have certainly heard from several who are anxiously awaiting its inception. This is yet another example of an area in which strong statistical leadership can have an impact that extends far beyond our membership.

So, here’s to statisticians leading with justice for all!