Environmental statisticians are responsible for the analysis and interpretation of environmental data, for the design of environmental studies, and for the dissemination of statistical methods and concepts to staff working within the environmental sector.
The role of an environmental statistician is typically highly interdisciplinary, and will often involve working with scientists or technical staff from a wide range of different backgrounds (environmental scientists, ecologists, chemists, physicists). It may also involve working with policy makers, managers or other decision makers. Key areas of expertise that the environmental statistician contributes are:
- an ability to synthesise and analyse data in appropriate ways, and to effectively and accurately communicate the results of these analyses to non-specialists; and
- an understanding of the importance of variability and uncertainty, and of the way in which these may be quantified?
Environmental statisticians will typically use a wide spectrum of statistical techniques, since standard statistical methods are often inappropriate for environmental data. One of the most important roles of the job is to give a clear and defensible description of the level of uncertainty that is associated with the results of an analysis.
Environmental statisticians are often involved in supporting scientific research programmes within research organisation or university departments. This may involve contributing to a single research project or providing support to a range of projects. In the latter case, work may involve short-term consultancy, giving advice to scientists on the design, analysis, interpretation or presentation of studies. Other work may be more long-term and may lead to joint publication of research findings in the form of academic papers or technical reports.
Environmental problems may require the development of innovative statistical methodology which is suitable for publication in statistics journals, and may also lead to publications in the appropriate environmental journals. There will be opportunities for attending national and international conferences to present your work and to learn from the work of fellow statisticians.
As you grow in experience, you are likely to play a greater role in setting objectives and designing projects. You will contribute to research grant proposals and may help coordinate multidisciplinary projects. Your expertise in a particular area of methodology can bring you into contact with many different fields of application, and open up new opportunities in your career.
Statisticians working in this sector may tackle problems in areas such as the following:
- Climatology, for example assessing changes in climate patterns
- Oceanography, for example assessing temperature patterns in ocean currents and their effects on the weather
- Extreme event risk assessment, for example looking at the probabilities of floods in an area or of increasing wave heights which may damage offshore structures
- Fisheries statistics such as assessing the population size and the development stage of fish stocks from landings and sparse sample measurements
- Environmental model assessment such as using sensitivity and uncertainty analyses on models to determine the accuracy of predicted future carbon budgets
- Impact assessment, for instance assessing the effects of a new factory on the local environment
- Environmental epidemiolog, for instance assessing the effects of air pollution on asthma occurrence
- Ecology such as modelling population changes of upland red deer
- Compliance issues such as framing sampling schemes to ensure that legislation protecting rivers from excessive pollution is observed
- Risk assessment such as assessing the risk of contamination and the likely environmental recovery from a nuclear accident.
Take a look at our profile of environmental statistician Adam Butler to learn more.
For the greatest career opportunities you will require a postgraduate degree (MSc or PhD). This reflects the fact that most demand is for statisticians who will work with scientists from other disciplines, have a wide knowledge of available statistical methods and have the confidence to provide the necessary statistical quality control on their work without day-to-day supervision. Some employers may recruit from a first degree and then sponsor their staff to undertake higher degrees.
For information about postgraduate degrees throughout the general area of statistics, please see our prospective postgraduates section.
Continuing professional development
Continuing professional development (CPD) is essential for environmental statisticians as new statistical techniques are always evolving, often driven by advances in computing. It is also important to keep up to date with the rapid advances in environmental science, which often require new statistical approaches. Usually CPD is carried out through activities such as attending and presenting work at conferences and studying and contributing to research journals.
The Environmental Statistics Section of the Royal Statistical Society website provides a forum for seminars of interest to environmental statisticians and has also run tutorial meetings and workshops of relevance to the discipline.
Your professional work as a statistician might well benefit from the professional qualification of Chartered Statistician (CStat), which would give you a professional affiliation with the Royal Statistical Society.
At the international level, membership of The International Environmetrics Society (TIES) will connect you to a worldwide network of statisticians working in the environment. TIES runs a series of conferences around the world. The group Statistics in Public Resources and Utilities, and Care of the Environment (SPRUCE) also runs international conferences and advanced workshops in environmental statistics.
A large proportion of environmental statisticians are employed within the public sector – universities, research institutes or government agencies – and pay is typically similar to that for academics or technical staff in other disciplines. General information about salaries, careers structures and promotion prospects in the academic sector can be found in the university lecturer section.
Starting salaries in universities or research council-funded organisations, for those who have recently completed a relevant PhD, will typically (as of 2012) be in the range of £25,000-30,0000 per annum. Final salaries depend upon career progresssion. Outside the public sector, salaries will be variable and will depend upon the nature of the job and organisation.
The key role of the environmental statistician is to analyse or give advice on the analysis of environmental data. Within this role you will typically be expected to gain a good understanding of the sources of the data that you work with, and of the potential statistical issues and challenges that are associated with them.
You will need to work closely with others (environmental scientists, technical staff or policy makers) in order to make sure that you understand the objectives that they have in analysing environmental data and to deploy appropriate techniques. Environmental data is very diverse, and will often involve having a very broad (but not necessarily deep) knowledge of a range of statistics – spatial statistics and time series analysis are of particular importance in environmental applications.
You will need to communicate methods and findings clearly to a non-statistical audience and ensure that the results of the data analysis are interpreted by others in an accurate and meaningful way.
Other aspects of the job vary between employers: you may be responsible for developing new methods for analysing environmental data, provide statistical training to colleagues and/or clients, or be involved in the design of new studies. Senior positions will often involve managing staff and will typically involve some degree of responsibility for seeking and securing new funding.
An environmental statistician is most likely to be employed in a publicly-funded research institute (for example, a NERC (Natural Environment Research Council) institute) or a university department. There are also some posts in government agencies such as the Environment Agency and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency or Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage.
There are some opportunities for statisticians in environmental consultancies, within a few multinational companies where environmental concerns are important and in some international organisations. These posts will often require a wider range of numerical skills than purely statistics, but statisticians are well placed to be considered for appointment.
The best places to find job vacancies are electronic mailing lists (particularly Allstat and Envstat), the StatsLife jobs board and New Scientist. Jobs are also listed on websites of organisations involved in environmental research and development, including NERC institutes, government agencies and universities. Nearly all jobs are in the public sector.
In many environmental research organisations, the scientific teams are multidisciplinary. Statisticians may be well qualified for jobs advertised under other titles, such as environmental modeller. It is therefore worth exploring the organisational structure of employers and pursuing jobs which might not initially be focused on statistical skills.
Career progression prospects within publicly funded research are similar to those for other disciplines: NERC, universities and other research councils all have defined career structures and routes to career progression. Rapid career advancement is most likely for those who can provide innovative, practical solutions to applied problems, who have the ability to engage in and contribute to multidisciplinary projects and who have the ability to secure new sources of funding.
Career progression within the private and charitable sectors are very variable and depend upon the nature of the organisation and role.
A key advantage of the job is that it allows you to play an important role in helping to deal with some of the key issues that face our society and our planet, such as climate change, flooding and the loss of biodiversity.
An environmental statistician’s job inherently cuts across different areas of expertise (hydrology, ecology, climate science) so there is a lot of opportunity for having a varied workload and for working closely with others.
Environmental and ecological data present many challenging statistical problems and new issues are constantly arising as new data collection technologies are developed (satellite imaging, electronic tagging, gene sequencing) – environmental statistics can therefore be an exciting and intellectually stimulating area to work in.
One disadvantage of the job is the fact that most organisations employ a relatively small number of environmental statisticians which means that the scope for team working may be limited and you may need to work hard to ensure that you continue to develop professionally. Pay is also generally lower than for statistical careers within sectors such as finance or pharmaceuticals.