The merits of RSS membership: an interview with John Pullinger

Written by Oz Flanagan on . Posted in Features-OLD

For an organisation that has been around for over 175 years, the Royal Statistical Society has seen a great many changes and challenges come and go. The current president, John Pullinger, is the latest in a long line to oversee the Society through a period of immense transition.

However, he leads the institution at a time when the discipline of statistics is of more relevance than ever for society. As he says himself, the importance of the profession of statistics comes from the fact that it is essentially a study on ‘the science of power’.

John spoke to StatsLife during his busy schedule at the annual RSS conference in Newcastle this year. The event gave the perfect example of what the strengths of involvement with the RSS can bring to its members. The conference is a gathering of like-minded people with a shared passion for, as John puts it, ‘a belief that if you understand numbers, you can understand the world better and if you understand the world better, you can make better choices in whatever walk of life you’re in.’

Traditionally, the Society has offered its members the established benefits of world leading journals and sections active in every field of interest. However, John believes the true advantages are in the web of professionals that membership grants access to: ‘Increasingly the real value the Society gives to people is being part of this network. I have met a lot of people at this conference who are maybe the only statistician within their organisation and it’s easy to feel isolated. They come here and they can pick up hints and tips on how to become better heard and more influential in their organisation.’

When asked about how the Society has changed during his involvement, John offered this observation: ‘I think the society is rediscovering its roots. In the Victorian period when the Society was fresh, it was people like William Gladstone or Florence Nightingale, who had this burning desire to make the world a better place with a very outward looking vocation. What I found when I became involved 25 odd years ago is that it was quite academic in character. Of course that is still important but I think you get a much richer community if you’re connecting the world of academia with the public facing world, and I think we have found a nice blend now.’

The era of big data and open data offers both challenges and opportunities for the Society’s future. John cites the example of economics as a case in point. ‘The whole economy is founded on data. That requires everybody to be comfortable with numbers and we are not there yet. We also need to get across to government, industry and anyone else who is creating these new data sets that it’s not enough to just publish them. It’s not enough to have big computing power in order to crunch them. What you actually need is statistical thinking to get some useful information out of it.’

This flood of data means that the qualified statistician becomes essential in making sense of what the data tells us. Without them, modern society starts to run into problems when amateurs make the judgements instead. As John puts it, ‘there are examples in the medical arena, environmental analysis or the financial crash where bad statistical thinking has driven poor decisions. We have to get the point across that the professionally qualified statistician is a unique resource in any organisation. So for the Society, the value of CStat or our other qualifications is going to become much greater in the future. If someone is accredited as a CStat, the person employing that individual can be confident that they have got someone with the professional competence to analyse the data.’

Herein lies another benefit that John believes the Society’s network offers to it members as a professional collection of statisticians with a strong code of conduct. Any interference or manipulation of statistical findings from outside sources with other agendas, need not leave a statistician feeling isolated. John has spoken about the importance of the Society standing united in the face of any infringement on a statisticians work to clearly state what the data, and nothing but the data, tells them.

Although he is keen for this to be the case at any level of the profession, a clear example of his beliefs on this came earlier this year. John personally wrote to the Greek President on the legal proceedings against Andreas Georgiou, head of the Greek statistics agency, ELSTAT. While he made no judgements on the individual legal case, in his role as President of the RSS, John clearly set out to stand in solidarity with a fellow professional seeking to fulfill his role in compiling accurate statistics for the benefit of Greek society.

If you are interested in joining the Royal Statistical Society, you can find all the information on how to become a member here, and further information on the Society’s professional qualifications here.

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