West Midlands local group event: In conversation with Deborah Ashby

The activities of West Midlands local group in 2020 were mostly selected to fit with marking its 75th anniversary. The last invited speaker of the session was RSS President, Professor Deborah Ashby, on 26th November. The idea of this local group meeting was to engage Deborah in conversation, rather than have a formal presentation so that Deborah could reflect on her time as president. Around 35 people were present at the online meeting.

She was introduced by local group chair Tim Davis. Deborah and Tim originally met in the early 1980’s (they were both elected fellows when David Cox was president) and subsequently served on Council together in the early 1990’s. The connection between engineering and medicine was nicely illustrated by the fact that early in their respective careers they both were fitting Cox proportional hazard regression models to their respective data sets. This provided a discussion theme to kick off the meeting.

The conversation started with Deborah’s response to a question about how a statistics career has shaped her as a person. She loved mathematics at school and was encouraged by her teachers to pursue further studies and later, being attracted by many emerging challenges in medical statistics, she decided to become a medical statistician, A key skill that Deborah highlighted as universal for statisticians is to develop good communication skills so that collaboration with colleagues in different disciplines can be exploited to maximum effect.

The conversation then turned to discuss economics. On whether economics has more influence than statistics in areas such as sustainable development goals, Deborah agreed that economics has been more prominent arguably because economists tend to give definitive answers to questions while statisticians like to incorporate uncertainty. But as has been the case with Covid-19, statistics is now taking centre stage. However, maybe statistics needs to be more pragmatic in its description of methods and giving clear straightforward answers whenever appropriate.

Responding to another question, Deborah said that as a society we can always do more to reach people in other disciplines. However, the society has worked a lot with journalists and science media centre. She acknowledged that most notable work to reach other disciplines tended to be at the individual level, but there is scope to do more at an organisational level.

Has the central role of statistics in the pandemic increased its interest in statistics? Deborah hoped so. She noted that most people seem to understand the R number but emphasised the need to improve communication, especially to help the media/journalists understand statistics since they play an important role to communicate them. She opined that Covid-19 has not necessarily opened new statistical areas but that statistics has become part of the national discussion. Now, statisticians now speak up more than previously, and do things quicker and more publicly out of necessity.

Deborah is keen to embrace people working in areas closely related to statistics such as those in computer science. She feels it is better to think of teams of scientists where the term Data Science or Data Sciences with statistics being part of it, could be adopted.

On whether RSS should use its Task Force or a website to communicate firm views on items such as 'controversial or incorrect' Covid-19 statistics and whether inference should be based on hypothesis testing using a p-value, Deborah did not think this (a dedicated website) is helpful. However, it is good to debate these issues, for example, discussing whether focus should be as much on generating hypotheses as testing them.
In summarising, Deborah remarked that the activities in the first year of her presidency were like those of previous presidents, for example giving her presidential address. She enjoyed engagement work, meeting statisticians from across globe, such as at the ISI meeting in Kuala Lumpur. In the second year, Covid-19 brought unexpected challenges which required doing things differently. The online RSS conference worked out financially, the attendance was good, and topics were varied and interesting, and many fellows got to attend who otherwise might not have been able to. In the future perhaps, a blended format of holding online meetings, along with face-to-face events may be the best way of doing things. After her presidential term, she intends to take a break and then embark on catching up with academic work.

The discussion concluded with the West Midlands local group extending its best wishes to Deborah and congratulating her on her presidency.
Author: Peter Kimani, Warwick Medical School

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