Statisticians worried by field's rate of decline

February 10, 2011

Their field may be popularly dismissed as one step worse than lies and damned lies, but statisticians fear that unless something is done to revive their flagging discipline, the UK's academy, economy and public policy will suffer.

In a report presented to the Economic and Social Research Council, a panel of experts says the UK's science and social science base is under threat because of a lack of expertise in statistics, a discipline it claims is in a "fragile and weakened condition".

The 2010 International Review of Mathematical Sciences panel's report says recent measures have failed to bolster the field.

"The study of statistics, as a science in its own right, is largely absent from school curricula. Usually a student encounters statistics only at university, often accidentally and in many instances through its use in other fields," the panel says.

Statistics has largely been subsumed within other disciplines in UK higher education, with just a few small centres of excellence remaining, according to the report.

"This marginalisation of statistics, with a diminished or non-existent recognisable presence in small universities, is in contrast to the situation in the US, where undergraduate statistics majors are increasing," it notes.

The rising age profile of statisticians, with very few mid-career academics, is also cited as a concern.

"The next leaders are not obvious," said Martin Dougherty, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society. "Statistics needs some quite significant help, otherwise our science base and our social science base will be less competitive."

Dr Dougherty said the skills drought would have a serious impact on the economy and public policy.

"People aren't being given the right quantitative skills and don't see data as part of the evidence base for making national policy," he said.

The panel advises the research councils to introduce new grants to promote statistics.

But Dr Dougherty acknowledged that "in the current climate, with a limited pot of money...it's very difficult to justify. That's the challenge for the research councils," he said.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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