By Ronald L. Wasserstein

Statistical science is as healthy as it ever has been, with robust growth in student enrollment, abundant new sources of data, challenging problems to solve and related opportunities to grasp over the next century, summarizes a just-released report on the future of the field.

Statistics and Science: A Report of the London Workshop on the Future of the Statistical Sciences (http://bit.ly/londonreport) is the product of a high-level meeting in London last November attended by 100 prominent statisticians from around the world. This invitation-only summit was the capstone event of the International Year of Statistics, a year-long celebration during 2013 that drew as participants more than 2,300 organizations from 128 countries.

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The report is written in an accessible style so people who are not experts in statistics can understand its messages and the field’s impact on society. It can be used as a resource by students interested in studying statistics at university, by policymakers who want to better understand the value statistics provides society and by the general public to learn more about the misunderstood field of statistical science.

Organizations participating in The World of Statistics are encouraged to make the workshop report broadly available and accessible in their country by doing the following:

  • Share the link to the report with your statistical and professional colleagues
  • Share the report with government agencies and private entities that provide research funding in your country
  • Share the report with the national statistical organization and other appropriate agencies in your country’s government
  • Post a short note about the report with its link to your website
  • Share the report and link with your membership or employees by including a story about it in a future issue of your organization’s official publication—magazine or newsletter—or via blast email
  • Send a copy of the report or its link to the media in your country along with a brief explanation
  • Send a copy to the statistics departments at universities in your country
  • Share the report with statistics-related organizations in your country that are not participating in The World of Statistics

Among the greatest challenges and opportunities noted in the report is the rise of Big Data, which are databases that dwarf in size any databases statisticians previously encountered. It is a challenge for several reasons: problems of scale, different kinds of data, the “look-everywhere” effect, privacy and confidentiality concerns and reinventing the “statistical” wheel by collectors of Big Data.

The advent of Big Data also has forced the statistical field to confront a question of its own identity. “The companies that work with Big Data are hiring people they call ‘data scientists.’ The exact meaning of this term is a matter of some debate; it seems like a hybrid of a computer scientist and a statistician,” notes the report.

This new job category brings both opportunity and risk to the statistics community. The value statisticians can bring to the enterprise is their ability to ask and answer such questions as these: Are the data representative? What is the nature of the uncertainty? It may be an uphill battle even to convince the owners of Big Data that their data are subject to uncertainty and, more importantly, bias.

On the other hand, it is imperative for statisticians not to be such purists that they miss the important scientific developments of the 21st century. “‘Data science’ will undoubtedly be somewhat different from the discipline to which statisticians are accustomed. Perhaps statisticians will have to embrace a new identity. Alternatively, they might have to accept the idea of a more fragmented discipline in which standard practices and core knowledge differ from one branch to another,” continues the report.

Section 2 of the report–titled Current Trends and Future Challenges in Statistics: Big Data–presents an in-depth report on Big Data, the most-discussed trend at the London workshop, and offers this advice to current and future statisticians: “Big Data should not be viewed only as a challenge or a nuisance. It is also an opportunity for statisticians to re-evaluate their assumptions and bring new ideas to the forefront.”

Other challenges and opportunities presented in the workshop report include reproducibility of scientific research, updating the randomized controlled trial, statistics of climate change, statistics in new venues, communication and visualization, education and professional rewards. These are covered in detail in Section 3.

Section 1 presents seven case studies that show how statistics is used throughout our world for the betterment of society. These include the development of randomized controlled trial methodology and methods for evaluating such trials, and the discovery through statistical methods of biomarkers–genes that confer an increased or decreased risk of certain kinds of cancer.

In its introduction, the report defines the job of statisticians using plain English as follows: “The mission of the statistician is to work with the scientists to ensure that the data will be collected using the optimal method (free from bias and confounding). Then the statistician extracts meaning from the data, so that the scientists can understand the results of their experiments and the CEOs and public servants can make well-informed decisions.”

The report concludes with a quote about the societal impact of statistical science by Nilrey Cornites, a recent statistics graduate from the Philippines: “I am still amazed by the power of statistics…. Because of statistics, we are able to have a glimpse of the future, to understand…the significant effect of a new product or medicine, and to understand the weather. Statistics saves lives, lowers the costs, helps ensure success and improves things and processes.”

The Workshop on the Future of the Statistical Sciences and the resulting report was organized by a committee comprised of members of the American Statistical Association, Royal Statistical Society, Bernoulli Society, Institute of Mathematical Statistics, International Biometric Society, and International Statistical Institute. These same groups were the lead organizers of the International Year of Statistics. Workshop lectures are available for free at www.statisticsviews.com (registration required).

Wasserstein is a member of The World of Statistics Steering Committee and executive director of the American Statistical Association.