New members sought for RSS Conference Board

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At the end of this year three positions as full members of the Society’s Conferences & Events Programme Board will become available.
 
The Board, chaired by the Theme Director for Meetings & Conferences and comprising nine full members plus a number of co-opted members, develops and delivers the Society’s annual conference programme, oversees special lectures and events, and review the overall meetings programme.
 
Full details of the remit and responsibilities of the board and its members can be found here.
 
Three members of the board will step down at the end of 2013 and therefore volunteers are sought to fill these vacancies for three years (2014-2016).  We seek to ensure that a broad range of sectors are represented on the board so while all applications are welcomed we are particularly keen to receive applications from Fellows working in the following areas: official/social statistics, pharmaceutical statistics and business/industrial statistics.
 
Further information can be obtained from and applications for the vacancies should be sent to Paul Gentry, RSS Meetings & Conferences Manager.
 
The deadline for applications is Friday 31 May.
 

Society criticises mathematics curriculum proposals

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The Royal Statistical Society has submitted a critical response to the government’s public consultation on reforming the national curriculum in England.
 
The new curriculum will be available in autumn 2013 and will be first taught in schools from September 2014.
 
As well as addressing specific questions raised in the consultation document, the RSS raised a number of broader issues around statistics in schools. In a letter accompanying the consultation response, RSS president John Pullinger stressed the importance of statistical literacy. ‘In a world awash with data, statistical understanding is increasingly important in all areas of society,’ he wrote. ‘The ability to understand numbers, interpret data and communicate evidence is an essential feature of the modern workplace, and crucial to competitiveness in the global market. And in the academic world, almost all subjects are increasingly quantitative.’
 
The consultation response made it clear that the curriculum proposals have insufficient statistical content. It also identified a lack of attention being given to promote students’ acquisition of transferable skills, in order to provide students with the ability to use their knowledge outside the mathematics classroom.
 
It stressed that the current curriculum at secondary level focuses on data presentation ‘to the detriment of statistics as a problem solving cycle’.  There are  ‘weaknesses’ in the way in which statistics is co-ordinated in subjects other than maths, and in the way its practical nature is assessed. ‘It is important that the government is aware, also, that mathematics teachers can themselves lack understanding in how to teach statistics in the manner we describe,’ John Pullinger’s letter states.
 
The RSS commended the current approach being used in New Zealand, which it praised for its integration of mathematics and statistics.
 
Finally, the RSS pointed out the ‘significant opportunities’ of using ICT in the teaching of statistics. ‘The way in which today’s students will use their statistical knowledge and understanding in the workplace and in HE will be closely linked to the way in which technology is opening up the possibility of using new and bigger datasets,’ Pullinger wrote in his letter.
 
The response referenced the RSS report ‘The Future of Statistics in our Schools and Colleges’ (opens as a pdf) as a detailed view of promoting statistical education, and also reiterated the Society’s willingness to be involved in discussions regarding the National Curriculum going forward.
 
The response and accompanying letter are available to download on the RSS website.
 

Collection of essays on science advice in government published

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A collection of essays about scientific advice in government has just been published on the website of Cambridge University’s Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP).
 
Future directions for scientific advice in Whitehall’ is a compilation of think pieces written by a variety of academics and policy advisers, including the outgoing UK chief scientific adviser Sir John Beddington. Based on a recent series of seminars aimed at stimulating fresh thinking and practical recommendations scientific advice in government, the compilation was launched at the recent CSaP annual conference (held on 18 April 2013).
 
The essays cover a variety of aspects of how science influences government policy. In his essay, ‘The science and art of effective advice’, Sir John Beddington summarised that the key challenge for a scientific adviser is ‘to ensure that the best science and engineering advice is brought to bear effectively on all government policy and decision-making.’ He acknowledges a number of challenges associated with this aim however, including balancing ‘strategic long-term advice on the one hand and the responsive marshalling of evidence for immediate questions on the other.’
 
Many of the contributors referred to the challenges associated with increasing amounts of public data. ‘Opening up big government data sets should allow much better applied academic work on the impact of government policy,’ said Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government in her essay, suggesting that more could be done around the next Research Excellence Framework to incentivise more applied research and expertise for policymakers. Rutter also identified the need for greater scientific understanding in government generally. ‘If Whitehall is to become more scientifically literate, there need to be more people with science backgrounds working on policy,’ she said.
 
Geoff Mulgan, chief executive of Nesta, asserted that big data, combined with new tools such as semantic analysis of social media could prompt a ‘revolution in how evidence feeds back into decision making’. He continued: ‘At the very least it’s likely to become more natural for professions like teaching or the police to be influenced by data – whether it’s real-time personalised feedback on how individual pupils are faring, or data on crime patterns in neighbourhoods.’
 
Elsewhere in the collection of essays, Harvard professor Sheila Jasanoff talked about the field of science and technology studies (STS) and the importance of keeping scientific advisers to account. Natalie Day from Oxford Martin School talked about the problems of giving advice on long-term decision making, while Dr Alice Bell from the University of Sussex looked at the role of social media and its impact on gathering opinions. Perspectives from the US and Australia were also covered.
 
Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, welcomed the publication. ‘It is a good step forward in showing how to develop the relationship between Whitehall and the scientific community, in order to strengthen evidence informed policy,’ he said.
 

Society to host conference on stats in universities

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The Royal Statistical Society is co-hosting a one-day conference on the way in which statistics is taught in higher education on 13 May 2013.
 
The conference, titled ‘Teaching Statistics in Universities: Where to next?’ will feature talks by a number of experts, including Roger Porkess, former chief executive of Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI) and author of last year’s RSS report, Future of statistics in our schools and colleges (opens as a pdf). RSS vice-president Kevin McConway will talk about the future of academic statistics in the UK and Gillian Lancaster from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Lancaster University, will examine the future of postgraduate taught courses in statistics.
 
The conference is being co-hosted by the Society’s Medical Section and ASLU (the Association of Statistics Lecturers in Universities). The importance of statistics for medical students will also be addressed by Gill Price (UEA), Annie Herbert (UCL) and Jenny Freeman, also a vice president of the RSS. Nasrollah Saebi of Kingston University will start off the day with a talk explaining the role of ASLU in statistical education.
 
The talks will be followed by a discussion of statistics curricula in universities.
 
Further information and registration details are available on the RSS events page.
 

Research on how debt levels affect economic growth comes under scrutiny

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Much-cited research by Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, regarding the relationship between a country’s level of debt and its growth prospects, has been questioned by researchers who claim to have found flaws in the data and methodology used.
 
Reinhart and Rogoff’s 2010 paper ‘Growth in a time of debt’ (opens as pdf), concluded that a debt-to-GDP ratio above 90 per cent was harmful to a country’s growth. It found that GDP growth collapses from 3-4 per cent to -0.1 per cent when this ratio is exceeded, and has subsequently been cited by many economists, commentators and politicians, including US congressman Paul Ryan and UK chancellor George Osborne.
 
A trio of economists at the University of Massachusetts – Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin – have thrown doubt on various aspects of the research.  In a new paper, ‘Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff’, they found a coding error in the calculations which had excluded five countries from the results. They also found other gaps and ‘unconventional weighting’ of summary statistics. As the paper’s abstract states, the researchers find that ‘when properly calculated, the average real GDP growth rate for countries carrying a public-debt-to-GDP ratio of over 90 per cent is actually 2.2 per cent, not -0.1 per cent’.
 
Reinhart and Rogoff were quick to respond to the criticism, and their response is published on the Financial Times’ website. They conceded that there had been a coding error, but defended the omission of other data, saying that at the time of the paper’s publication, some of it was simply not available. They also defended their decisions around weighting in the paper and concluded that Herndon, Ash and Pollard’s results were not dramatically different since ‘they, too, find lower growth associated with periods when debt is over 90 per cent.’
 
Commenting on the response, FT economics editor Chris Giles said it showed that we should ‘be very wary of relatively small sample cross-country comparisons to tell us anything meaningful about policy’.
 

Open data supporters argue case for open postcode data

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Proponents of open data, including Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt of the Open Data Institute, are critical of government plans to leave the Postcode Address File (PAF) under Royal Mail ownership.
 
The Royal Mail is ‘steward’ of the PAF data, which holds some 28m UK addresses. Access to the PAF is currently via a licensing regime with licence fees starting at £75 per year (although free to the public sector under the Public Sector Licence).
 
A recent Ofcom consultation proposed that Royal Mail should continue to charge licensees for usage, although in a simplified licensing structure. This has disappointed many champions of open data, including the Royal Statistical Society, which expressed concern in recent a letter to Ofcom (opens as pdf) that the data could be put ‘at risk’ unless it was explicitly safeguarded in any new arrangements.
 
‘Royal Mail privatisation presents an opportunity to maximise the economic advantage of the PAF dataset,’ Professor Shadbolt wrote in a recent blog post on the ODI website. ‘Ideally this would have happened by taking it out of the hands of Royal Mail and making it open data.’
 
Shadbolt went on to explain that the PAF is currently ‘a critical missing dataset in the UK’, and that the lack of an open data source was ‘the single biggest complaint from open-data entrepreneurs’.
 
The licence cost puts the PAF out of reach for many SMEs and data entrepreneurs, according to Shadbolt. ‘Companies need this data to drive business and domestic services, logistics, customer relationships and advertising,’ he argued. ‘In an age of emerging mobile computing and location-based services it is key data for further innovation.’
 
The ODI has called for Ofcom, who administer licensing for the PAF, to make it available ‘under an open licence and at marginal cost’.
 
A government spokesperson has responded in a statement saying it was in discussion with Royal Mail and Ofcom to see how the licensing could ‘better suit the needs of small companies’.
 

Next date for Journal Club

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The Society has set a date for another Journal Club, following the success of the first event, which took place in April.
 
The next Journal Club, sponsored by Quintiles, will take place on 13 June, via teleconference, between 2pm and 4pm (BST).
 
The article being discussed, titled ‘On information quality’, is to be published in the Society’s Series A Journal, ‘Statistics in Society’ (doi: 10.1111/rssa.12007) and will be available online to non-subscribers shortly until a few weeks after the event.
 
In the paper, authors Galit Shmueli (Indian School of Business, Gachibowli, India) and Ron S. Kenett (KPA, Raanana, Israel, University of Turin, Italy, and New York University–Poly, USA) define the concept of information quality ‘InfoQ’ as ‘the potential of a data set to achieve a specific (scientific or practical) goal by using a given empirical analysis method’. During the teleconference, both authors will talk about the paper and applications and related work.
 
 
Meanwhile, the last event, which was a joint session with PSI, sponsored by Quintiles and Wiley, was deemed a great success with more than 70 individuals or groups dialling in. A podcast of this event will  be available shortly.
 

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