Council meeting 30 January 2013

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Council met yesterday (30 January) for the first time in 2013, chaired by the new president John Pullinger. 
 
Diana Garnham, chief executive of the Science Council, attended the meeting and gave a presentation on the work of her organisation and how the RSS works with it.
 
Council received an update from former RSS vice president Sheila Bird, who is leading the society’s work on the issue of delayed registration of deaths in England and Wales.  Council had agreed a policy statement in 2012 and commended the work that Sheila has undertaken so far.  There will be a further update on this issue in due course.
 
Another key agenda item was membership and Council examined the membership trends from 2012 as well as preliminary results from the member survey.  The strategy around membership structures was discussed and Council will be looking more closely at this area in the future.
 
Council discussed member communication, prompted by the fact that Frank Duckworth is standing down as editor of RSS NEWS at the end of May, having given the Society twenty years of exemplary voluntary service. Council took the view that it was time to integrate the Society’s member communications into one stream through the e-bulletin and the RSSeNews website, and so the June issue of RSS NEWS will be the last in that form. The Society plans to maintain the type of content in RSS NEWS and integrate it into members’ regular e-bulletins and on the website.
 
Council formally appointed Stephen Pyke as vice president of Professional Affairs, Jenny Freeman as vice president of External Affairs and Kevin McConway as vice president of Academic Affairs for 2013.  It also approved the nominations for the society’s honours which will be announced formally once all of the recipients have been informed.
 

Big Data to get lion’s share of extra science funding

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David Willetts, minister for universities and science, announced details last week (24 January 2013) of where the government planned to allocate the extra £600 million of funding announced by the chancellor George Osborne in the last Autumn Statement.
 
At an event hosted by think tank Policy Exchange, Willetts defined the ‘eight great technologies’ where the funding was to be channelled. Big Data was number one, with the greatest amount of funding allocated to it (£189 million). The other areas for investment were listed as: space (£25m), Robotics (£35m), synthetic biology (£88m), agri-science (£30m), advanced materials (£73m) and energy (£30m).
 
Willetts said that the money allocated to Big Data would be invested over the next two years in areas such as bioinformatics, environmental data, and further investment into the Life Study birth cohort project led by the Economics and Social Research Council (ESRC). He also spoke of encouraging co-investment from  industry by sharing government plans for investment via the E-Infrastructure Leadership Council, which he currently chairs with former Unilever senior business executive Dominic Tildesley.
 
The universities and science minister also announced a forthcoming £350 million call to be issued on 6 February by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) for more Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) which aim to develop talent and expertise in more than 60 priority areas, including one area titled ‘data to knowledge’.
 

LSE Commission report calls for new measurement of UK’s growth

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The UK’s growth should be measured by median income, rather than solely focusing on GDP, says a report by the LSE Commission, published last week (31 January 2013).
 
The report, Investing in Prosperity: Skills, Infrastructure and Innovation makes a number of recommendations aimed at improving the long-term economic future of the UK. It calls for a new policy framework to invest in skills, infrastructure and innovation – what it calls the ‘essential drivers’ of productivity growth, and warned that a failure to invest in these key areas would threaten the UK’s future prosperity.
 
The LSE Growth Commissioners who authored the report are a group of high-profile economists, business leaders and policy advisors. Names include Nobel prize winner Chris Pissarides, former Bank of England deputy chair Rachel Lomax, former World Bank vice president Nick Stern and LSE professors Tim Besley and John Van Reenen, who co-chair the commission.
 
The authors placed particular emphasis on raising the educational standards and aspirations of low achieving groups; boosting apprenticeships; and investing substantially in transport, energy, telecoms and housing. Other key recommendations included greater competition in retail banking and a business bank that prioritises lending to SMEs and innovative firms.
 
The report also called for median household income to have greater influence in debates about growth policy. ‘While the key proposals in this report are geared towards raising GDP, monitoring developments in median household income would be a particularly valuable way of gauging the inclusiveness of the growth that is generated,’ it stated.
 
The need for broad cross-party support was also emphasised. ‘It is vital to develop policies that look beyond the next budget cycle, the next spending review and the next parliament,’ said John Van Reenen. ‘We challenge the main political parties to form a consensus for long-run investment to achieve prosperity for our nation.’
 

ISI introduces new prize for contribution to statistics

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The International Statistical Institute (ISI) is inviting nominations for a new award recognising a contemporary research contribution in statistics: The Karl Pearson Prize.
 
The prize, to be awarded biennially, comprises a cash award of 5,000 euros plus a trip to the ISI World Statistics Congress (WSC) in Hong Kong in August 2013. The inaugural prize will be presented at the WSC, where the winner will also present the Karl Pearson Lecture.
 
The nominations, which must be made to the ISI by 10 March, 2013, should be for a research contribution that has had profound influence on statistical theory, methodology, practice or applications. The contribution should be a research article or book published within the last three decades, ie on or after January 1, 1983.
 
Karl Pearson (1857-1936) was an English mathematician and philosopher and a key figure in the development of mathematical statistics. His contributions include the correlation coefficient; the Chi-squared statistic for testing goodness-of-fit and for measuring association in contingency tables; the method of moments and the Pearson family of frequency curves. He started the advanced study of statistics at University College London as well as co-founding the statistics journal Biometrika in 1901, which he edited until his death.
 
Nominations for the prize are due in the ISI Office by March 10, 2013. Further information and the nomination form are available on the ISI website.
 

UK Statistics Authority comments on Prime Minister’s debt claim

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Andrew Dilnot, the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, has commented on a statement made by Prime Minister David Cameron, who had claimed the coalition government was ‘paying down Britain’s debts’ in a Conservative party political broadcast on the 24th January 2013.
 
In response to a complaint made by Rachel Reeves, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Dilnot wrote: ‘It is clearly important for all parties to public debate in this area to understand the relevant statistical definitions and to distinguish changes in the level of debt outstanding from changes in borrowing per period, and to reflect these in their  communication of the statistical trends involved.’
 
He then went on to explain the difference between debt, borrowing and deficit and noted that public sector net debt had risen between the end of the second quarter of 2010 and the end of the fourth quarter of 2012.
 

Late registration of deaths is a public health risk, RSS warns

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RSS president John Pullinger has written to the National Statistician Jil Matheson, to the director general of the Office for National Statistics Glen Watson, and to the chief executive of the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) Tim Straughan, re-affirming the Society’s concern about delayed registrations of deaths in England and Wales.
 
The letters follow the adoption of a further statement on the issue by the Society’s Council on 30 January 2013, and call for action to ensure that users of official statistics and registration data are made aware of what the available data do, and do not, deliver.
 
In a policy statement issued last year on 25 January 2012 the RSS had expressed concern that delayed registration of deaths in England and Wales posed a risk to public health by potentially undermining the statistics used for public health monitoring.
 
In England and Wales, coroner-referred deaths are not registered until the  cause of death has been established. However, if a death is subject to an inquest, it may not be registered for months or even years, while awaiting the coroner’s verdict. Moreover, the ONS and HSCIC are essentially unaware that these deaths have even occurred. The Society points out that around 10,000 deaths every year in England and Wales (including one in five deaths in England and Wales at 5-44 years of age) are not registered until at least six months after the event. Late registration affects premature deaths in particular, including some specific causes of death, such as drug-related deaths and suicides.
 
The RSS has called for the registration of deaths to be uncoupled from the registration of cause of death in England and Wales (and has set out ten arguments against late registration in full) – this, however, requires legislation. Therefore, the RSS also recommends that until legislation is changed, users of these statistics, including researchers, are properly informed of the discrepancy and are fully aware of which datasets are affected by it.
 
Former RSS vice president, Professor Sheila Bird, who is leading the Society’s work on this issue, explained the significance of this policy: ‘At least half of the drugs-related deaths registered in 2011 would have occurred in calendar years preceding 2011. The potential for registration-delays to confound underlying calendar-year trends in England’s cause-specific mortality needs to be addressed for the good of our public health.
 
‘In novel epidemics, referrals to coroners are likely to alter, which means that chief medical officers need the back-stop of knowing that all deaths in their nation, without exception, are registered promptly so that follow-up inquiries can be made as a matter of urgency to establish if the novel pathogen might have been implicated.’
 
The RSS argues that such discrepancies between the year of death and the year in which the death is registered as occur in England and Wales can impede discovery in record-linking studies and hinder safety monitoring in randomised controlled trials as well as obscure trends in mortality rates. ‘Record-linkage generally requires us to establish the survival-status of participants at a specified date,’ Sheila Bird explains. ‘To get the required information about deaths in England and Wales, I may have to delay analyses by two years or more, which is unacceptable.’
 
She added: ‘The RSS is particularly grateful to Patrick Mercer OBE MP who, through a series of parliamentary questions, has helped us to reveal  the extent of the problems posed by late-registration of deaths.’
 
The latest statement by the RSS can be read in full here.
 

British Academy highlights benefits of statistical skills in new guide

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The British Academy has just produced a new guide for current social science and humanities undergraduates, highlighting the benefits of quantitative skills (QS) in a number of different professional roles.
 
Stand up and be counted (a pdf downloadable from the British Academy’s website), lists the range of careers in which being numerate and statistically savvy are highly prized qualities. The guide features case studies of a range of figures in the private, public and third sectors as well as academia and the media, for whom data-handling skills are key to their role.
 
Among those interviewed are: National Statistician Jil Matheson; director of YouGov, Joe Twyman; CEO of Waterstones, James Daunt; and the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Statistics, Lord David Lipsey. Each one describes the steps taken to learn QS, and how statistical literacy has contributed to their careers.
 
The guide, produced in collaboration with the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), can be downloaded from here.
 

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