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ASA at 175 - Increasing visibility through involvement with AAAS

By Ronald Wasserstein posted Feb 17, 2014 10:08 AM


Increasing the visibility of the statistics profession is one of the ASA’s strategic themes and biggest challenges.  Statisticians have long been aware of the need to increase the profile of statistics in the sciences.  But figuring out how to approach that problem has been a struggle.

Two things came together in 2012 and 2013 to give us a good push in the right direction.  Section U, which is the section on statistics in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), turned 50 years old in 2013, and 2013 ASA President Marie Davidian decided to take specific action to increase the visibility of statistics within AAAS, and to increase the visibility of AAAS within the statistics community.

Davidian’s reasoning was that the largest scientific organization in the world provided the single best platform on which to focus our efforts.  This dovetailed perfectly with the desire of Section U leadership (particularly Mitch Gail and Jane Pendergast) to increase the visibility and activity of the section.

The outcome of the ASA and Section U efforts has been excellent.  But now that I’ve spoiled the ending, let me tell you the story. In May, 2011, three ASA representatives (Tom Louis, Sastry Pantula, and me) met with Alan Leshner, CEO of the AAAS.  The meeting was prompted by the February 11, 2011 issue of Science magazine, which focused on “big data” but had virtually no mention of statistics or statisticians. 

Leshner candidly told us that, in his view, most scientists view statistics as a set of tools rather than as a discipline or profession.  He said we have a lot of PR work to do, both within AAAS and within the greater scientific community.  And he offered suggestions for things that could be done.

We took that advice to heart.  We connected with the editorial leadership of Science, and the result was an editorial in the April 6, 2012, issue of Science by Davidian and Louis entitled “Why Statistics?”  Section U leadership stepped up efforts to get statistics-related sessions on the program for the AAAS meeting and to get more statistics students involved in the poster competition. Pendergast and Davidian, with help from AAAS staff, mounted a promotion at JSM and in Amstat News about Section U membership, resulting in a 14% increase in the size of this statistics section.  In other words, the statistics community focused attention on increasing its profile.

Fast forward to September, 2013, then, to see the results of these efforts.  Davidian and I, along with ASA staff members Jeff Myers and Steve Pierson, met again with Leshner.  This meeting had a much different tone, and it was clear that we had made real progress in communicating the importance of statistics and statisticians.  Immediately after that meeting we met with Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science, and her leadership team.  It was a cordial and productive meeting, with information shared about the importance of statistics in sciences and about possible roles for statisticians in Science magazine.  There were several concrete outcomes of the meeting:

  • The ASA was asked to provide a list of statisticians who can help review submitted research papers and serve on the Board of Reviewing Editors of Science. The process of adding statisticians is underway.
  • Science sent a reporter to the Future of the Statistical Sciences Workshop.
  • Science will have someone from their staff cover the JSM.
  • McNutt wrote an editorial on reproducibility in the January 17, 2014 issue of Science. The ASA was explicitly mentioned: “…with the advice of the American Statistical Association and others, we are adding new members to our Board of Reviewing Editors from the statistics community to ensure that manuscripts receive appropriate scrutiny in their methods of data analysis.”

We are also engaged with the AAAS through its Science and Human Rights Coalition.  ASA staff has made connections with AAAS staff at several levels.  A key connection is through Steve Pierson, ASA Director of Science Policy, who works with the AAAS Government relations staff to support for our efforts to improve statistical practice in climate science and forensic science, as well as funding for research and federal statistical agencies.

The slogan for Section U in its 50th anniversary year was “AAAS+Statistics=U”.  One very concrete thing you can do is to join AAAS and Section U, adding more statistical firepower to AAAS.  If you are interested in reviewing papers for Science, let me know, and I’ll get your name to the right people.  Need more reasons to join?  Read this column by Marie Davidian.  Help us in this specific and thus far quite successful effort to increase the visibility of our profession.

In 2014, the American Statistical Association is celebrating its 175th anniversary. Over the course of this year, this blog will highlight aspects of that celebration, and look broadly at the ASA and its activities. Please contact ASA Executive Director Ron Wasserstein ( if you would like to post an entry to this blog.