An interview with our president Deborah Ashby

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Professor Deborah Ashby is the new RSS President, a position she will hold until the end of 2020. We caught up with Deborah to find out more about her statistical background, her career in medical statistics and what she sees as the key issues in statistics over her forthcoming term as president.

From statistics graduate to medical statistician

Having studied her first degree in maths, what drew Deborah towards medical statistics? ‘I got drawn into stats during my maths degree,’ she remembers. ‘I remember liking the fact you could look at real state-of-the-art problems. In hindsight, it was also seeing enthusiastic people doing good work.’

Deborah followed what she calls a ‘fairly standard’ route into medical statistics - maths degree, statistics masters then a medical statistics PhD. Her three-year postdoc focused more on environmental epidemiology and the effects of cadmium and lead levels in the blood. When she moved to Liverpool to start a lectureship she worked on cancer epidemiology, cystic fibrosis and cancer, as well as studies of dementia and depression.

If you’re curious as to how medical statisticians work with their clinical colleagues, Deborah describes a typical working relationship: ‘Academic clinicians still work directly with patients for some of the week,’ she says. ‘They bring their questions in and ask how we could do a research study to inform their practice. When I worked on cystic fibrosis, questions would come up in clinical practice; our answers then feed back into improving that practice.’

Clinical trials and drug regulation

Deborah’s research shifted into clinical trials and drug regulation from the early 90s, when she joined a sub-committee of The Committee on Safety of Medicines, (now the Commission on Human Medicines - CHM) which advised the health minister on every medicine released in the UK. ‘There was an initiative called Opportunity 2000 in the 90s which aimed to get Government committees to be at least 25% women,’ Deborah explains. ‘It gave me a huge opportunity and I took to it like a duck to water. I inevitably started doing more trials and looking at the safety of drugs and then got asked to join the CHM.’ This work contributed to the award of an OBE for services to medicine in 2009. She now sits on the cardiovascular special advisory group for the European Medicines Agency.

Diversifying the stats community

The Opportunity 2000 initiative gave Deborah a career changing opportunity and provides a good example of ensuring diversity on important committees such as the CHM. ‘When there’s an externally facing role it’s important you have diversity in both professional and personal characteristics,’ she says. ‘You need to identify what is needed for balance and look for who compliments that.’ Deborah is delighted that the RSS – for the first time – now has gender parity on its Council. However, as she is only the fourth female president of the Society in its 185 year history, there is still clearly work to do.

RSS Presidency and the vision for the next two years

Deborah’s involvement with the RSS dates back to her early career and she has spent time on the Society’s medical section, Merseyside local group, and Council as well as six years as RSS Honorary Secretary, which gave her a thorough overview of the Society’s activities. ‘It was much smaller scale when I started,’ she remembers. ‘There were only around four members of staff (there are more than 30 now). We didn’t have a lecture theatre and our conference was run by volunteers!’ As a Chartered Statistician (CStat), she also appreciates the value of professional accreditation by the Society.

Being so well-acquainted with the RSS, what is the new president’s vision for her presidency? ‘My starting point was the reasons the Society was set up in the first place,’ she says. ‘Back then, the language focused on facts for society and the public good. This is key, and it’s worth revisiting what that means in the 21st century.’ More specifically, Deborah is concerned with capacity building among statisticians. ‘A lot of us feel very at sea with what is meant by machine learning and big data and there are current challenges about how we skill up the existing workforce,’ she says.

AI, machine learning and data science

The rise of machine learning and AI has excited a lot of people, but like many other statisticians, Deborah is keen that statistical principles are integrated into these new disciplines. ‘They seem to be team sciences,’ she says. ‘Not everyone has to be a statistician to work on them, but they should be working with statisticians. Whether you’re doing machine learning or artificial intelligence on a dataset, if you don’t understand that data, you are going to make mistakes.’

Data Science is another emerging area of science that requires statistical thinking. ‘Peter Diggle [former RSS President] puts it nicely when he says data science is statistics and computation and the science, and to do data science you need all of those,’ says Deborah. ‘We statisticians should certainly embrace data science and get stuck in rather than letting it develop separately – that would be to our peril.’

In terms of other current priorities for statisticians, Deborah sees public statistical literacy as an ‘important, but different’ priority, as well as the upcoming census, preparation for which is now under way.

The debates around data ethics

Nearly all of these issues lead back to current debates around data ethics – be it regarding ownership, privacy or data sharing. Deborah’s background in medical statistics means she is fully aware of the complex issues involved. ‘There are many debates about data ownership,’ she says. ‘There’s the argument that data should be made public if a study is publicly funded – but I wouldn’t want to spend two years on a study if I wasn’t going to get first bite of the results. These are competing interests that we need to work through.’

She is also acutely aware of the challenges involved in making clinical trials data open. ‘It’s not a trivial task, like sharing an excel spreadsheet’ she says. ‘These days, even a modest sized trial can have many dozen different files that need linking together because of the way it’s been collected. There’s a huge amount of technical issues involved – never mind the ethics of what should be shared and what shouldn’t.’

These are clearly very well-trodden issues in medical statistics and the devil, says Deborah, is in the detail. ‘It’s like saying we should have a wonderful public transport system,’ she says. ‘What does that mean, what do we do first, how do you reconcile my rights as a cyclist with yours as a car-user? There are solutions but you have to think through it carefully and be prepared to make some tough calls.’

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Deborah will be giving the President's Address on Wednesday 26 June 2019 at the Royal Statistical Society in London. She is also speaking at our Women in statistics event next Friday 8 March; also at RSS HQ. To register for either event, please follow the relevant link.

Deborah Ashby

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