Professor Deborah Ashby visited RSS Merseyside on Wednesday 11 March 2020, to deliver her RSS Presidential Lecture at the University of Liverpool. Deborah introduce herself and discussed her close ties with the University of Liverpool, having previously worked here and been a key member of the RSS Merseyside local group.
The talk began with the topic of the 1887 Royal Charter statement, highlighting the key concepts of using data for public good, developing statistical science and building statistical capacity. This was followed by a revisit of the previous RSS presidents’ addresses, including William Farr and William Guy. Deborah the two meanings of statistics: state (relating to data) and science (the science of statistics). Examples of work the former presidents were involved with were discussed including Charles Booth’s significant contribution to mapping areas of affluency across London City and involvement with the census.
Deborah went onto describe female statistician Florence Nightingale’s work as an RSS fellow. Florence Nightingale was a passionate statistician who had worked with William Farr and was involved with promoting education, alongside her work in record-keeping for London hospitals and pioneering sanitary reform in India. Her activities tied in with RSS principles of promoting statistics in the society.
The idea of mustard seeds being one of the smallest plant seeds, yet yielding vigorous crops was introduced. RA Fisher, who developed agricultural experimental method and the ANOVA (analysis of variance) method and Peter Armitage, pioneer of the statistics in medicine MSc course at LSHTM (1969), were given as examples of how the spread of mustard seeds could lead to a mustard field in the area of statistics.
Deborah then went on to explore the current landscape for open data and wide availability of data. She referred to the idea of ‘pigeon-holes’, whereby data is available but not being used. She further explained that this is an area that statisticians and data scientists could utilise.
With reference to ‘building statistical capacity’, Deborah discussed the training and engagement opportunities in RSS such as the Young Statisticians Society (YSS) group working to promote statistics; professional qualifications such as GradStat/CStat/CPD recognition; training courses and the Statisticians for Society volunteering scheme working with local charities.
Potential challenges that RSS in the future would need to address were then discussed. Guy’s previously highlighted areas included: education, crime, industry, wealth and health. In addition to these, Deborah introduced other areas that are becoming more important in the modern era, such as increasing life expectancy and the resulting ageing population, increasing multi-morbidity and the environment (loss of species and diversity as a key area). These would be the additional areas that RSS could look to work on.
One of the key points of the concluding remarks including that data is everywhere, which calls for training more people in-depth. This has led to an increase of online resources, such as MOOCs (massive open online courses), which aim to improve diversity of skills. This was linked back to RSS’s improvement in diversity in gender, background and other equality measures. Deborah concluded on the bright outlook for RSS going forward and the great work done with the public.