Interview: Vice President for Academic Affairs, Richard Samworth

Starting his four-year term of office as Vice President for Academic Affairs in January 2024, Professor Richard Samworth brings much experience teaching, researching and organising at the University of Cambridge to the RSS. We shared a brief introductory chat to explore Richard’s insights on the exciting areas of academic progress and how the RSS can continue to support advancements in statistics and data.
Can you tell us a little about your life in data and statistics so far?
I’ve been doing research in Statistics for over 20 years now. One of the main attractions is that I find statistical problems give me a good balance between being intellectually stimulating and practically important. Most of my work involves developing methodology and theory for contemporary challenges in high-dimensional and nonparametric Statistics, including subgroup selection, missing data, semi-supervised learning, shape-constrained inference, (conditional) independence testing and changepoint problems, among others.
What, in your opinion, are some of the most exciting areas of academic progress in the field currently, and how can the RSS support further advancements here?
Over the course of my career, high-dimensional Statistics stands out as a growth area, motivated by the unprecedented quantities of data now routinely collected. Causal inference and statistical aspects of machine learning and AI have also been enjoying a surge of interest and development recently. The RSS can support these areas through their journals, sections, local groups, special interest groups, conferences and workshops.
Your work with the Statistics Clinic at the University of Cambridge helps academics from various specialties to properly use data in their research. Could you speak a little on the role of interdisciplinarity and how the RSS can reach out to other academic fields in promoting a data-driven world?
I set up the Statistics Clinic about 15 years ago to allow anyone at the university to receive help with their statistical questions once a fortnight from me or one of the other clinic helpers. I must have done several hundred consultations by now, and have often been struck by the enormous range of problems and disciplines represented. Of course, we get many researchers from the life sciences, but we’ve had linguists, musicologists, physicists – we must have had almost every academic subject studied in the university at some time. It is a great reminder of the versatility and interdisciplinarity of Statistics. In my experience, the RSS tends to be quite good at engaging with other academic fields.
How do you see the role of the RSS evolving in the next few years, particularly concerning academic engagement and collaboration?
The RSS will be involved in the new National Academy for the Mathematical Sciences, which should have a powerful voice. It will need to collaborate with the other founding societies to maximise its impact.
What RSS programmes or initiatives would you like to see implemented or enhanced?
I think the RSS could do more in enhancing the cohesion of the UK academic Statistics community. We don’t get together very often these days, particularly since the pandemic. The conference can play an important role in this respect, and I hope it will expand its academic focus. I'd also like to review the way that discussion papers work.
Finally, do you have a favourite statistic or piece of data?
99.94. All cricket fans will know…
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