Oct 2, 2017

Alison Etheridge: President’s Message

Jon Wellner (left) handed the President’s gavel to Alison Etheridge at JSM—a statistics meeting with a surprising amount for a probabilist like her to enjoy

Alison Etheridge is IMS President, 2017–18. She writes:

Well, that was it. Jon Wellner handed over the gavel (and I rapidly handed it back to Elyse for safe keeping). Tati took a picture and, before I had a chance to think about it, cheerily persuaded me to write something for the Bulletin. And now it seems that I am President of the IMS (and writing something for the Bulletin).

It was just the next daunting event in a slightly overwhelming week. The JSM is on a completely different scale to any meeting that I’ve ever before attended. Representing the IMS with Jon at the First-Time Attendee Orientation, I was too embarrassed to reveal the first timer’s ribbon lurking in my own pocket. But what a wonderful experience it was. I was surrounded by excited young people, all of whom were far more prepared than me. Yes, they had managed to download a version of the app that worked (not something that I had even tried with my aged not-very-smartphone); yes, they knew the opening hours of the Expo; and yes, they had planned their schedules. Jon reminded me that my own schedule required me to be elsewhere and we left a vast hall, buzzing with energy.

That was the first of many receptions at the JSM, where I met many more old friends than I expected and made plenty of new ones. Everybody was curious to know what I was setting out to achieve as President. I’m not sure that I found a very satisfactory answer. At one level, the answer is not much; the IMS is in great shape and my primary aim should be not to do too much damage. On the other hand, in an organisation that is so dependent upon electronic communication, it is especially important to make sure that initiatives don’t lose momentum, and I should certainly like to nudge along some of the activities that were kicked off by my predecessors.

Lacking a more imaginative agenda, when I set out to write this piece, I decided to turn to those predecessors for inspiration. What had they written? I think all of them agreed that a year is anyway too short a time in which to change very much. And there were other recurrent themes: IMS ‘groups’, data science, and a concern that probability and statistics — or at least probabilists and statisticians — might be moving apart. So where are we now?

Even having made my research base in a Department of Statistics for the last twenty years, I would still never describe myself as a statistician. And when I signed up for the JSM it was solely because of the IMS annual meeting; I didn’t even check out the scientific programme before registering. Indeed, I briefly wondered how I’d fill my days. In the event, I had quite the opposite problem. Here are a few of the keywords from the lectures that I attended: random forests,
random networks, random matrices, Erdős-Rényi graphs, Wasserstein distances, differential geometry… Any probabilists out there feeling jealous? If there is any separation between probabilists and statisticians, it is certainly not built on a chasm between the underlying disciplines. On the other hand, statistics and probability are growing at an unprecedented rate, and it becomes ever more difficult to maintain any sense of cohesion across the piece. Here, the IMS has an important role to play in providing the necessary glue.

With governments and funding agencies in many parts of the world increasingly focused on “goal-oriented” research, with evident (and preferably imminent) financial or societal benefits, many theoretical researchers can feel sidelined. But experience shows that not only does this more applied research stimulate exciting theoretical research, but very often the theoreticians have spent decades developing just the tools that are required for the application. Think of financial mathematics. Bachelier’s famous thesis introduced the idea of using Brownian motion in option pricing in 1900, but it was essentially forgotten by economists for half a century. When it was rediscovered by economists in the 1950s, not only was the economics surprisingly relevant, but also stochastic analysis had matured to just the point where the tools were in place for the Nobel Prize-winning theory of option pricing to be developed. The pioneers of stochastic analysis were not motivated by the applications in finance, yet no goal-oriented research programme could have developed a better toolkit. And of course, stochastic analysis has much broader applications. In an era of big data, we are seeing the stochastic analysis story replicated many times over. It becomes ever clearer that we absolutely need a community to be developing the theoretical tools and structures, but that to exploit those increasingly sophisticated tools effectively requires communication and collaboration. By bringing so many people together under a single umbrella, the IMS offers outstanding opportunities for cross-fertilisation of ideas across our vast discipline.

IMS Groups

To be successful in this, in a rapidly changing scientific landscape, we must be effective and agile in engaging with our members—and that was one of the motivations for setting up the IMS groups. I should emphasize that groups are certainly not intended to be exclusive; it is perfectly reasonable to be associated with multiple groups, but they should facilitate more targeted engagement. The IMS groups have been around for seven or eight years, but, on the whole, I think that it is fair to say, they have not really taken off. The most obvious exception is the New Researchers Group, which has really flourished in the last couple of years: Richard Davis announced its existence in his President’s article two years ago, but the New Researchers Committee has existed for much longer, and I think that the committee will be the key to providing the continuity and “institutional memory” necessary for the group’s ongoing success. The New Researchers Committee focuses on ensuring the continuance of the New Researchers Conference (NRC), a robust web presence, and fostering new ways for young researchers to meet, collaborate, and share their experience. This last activity is greatly enhanced by the first: the scientific programme of the NRC is interspersed with discussion panels, as I experienced first-hand in NRC 2018. I have no idea how useful the comments of panel members were to the New Researchers (not least as, in large part due to the UK/US language barrier, this panel member only understood the topic of the panel she was on five minutes after it began), but the value of early career academics sharing their ideas and experience in a lively and positive environment is indisputable. I enjoyed myself enormously and I have already signed up for next year.

Of course there is still more for the New Researchers Group to do, such as increasing its global reach, but my hope is that lessons learned from their successes can be transferred to other areas. I suspect that each group will need some sort of steering committee to play a similar role to the New Researchers Committee and ensure that the leadership can be refreshed and passed on in a regular cycle. The first test case will be Data Science.

Data Science Group

The Data Science group was also announced by Richard in his piece two years ago. To my delight, Sofia Olhede and Patrick Wolfe have volunteered to take on its leadership at what I see as a crucial time. Whether one thinks that statisticians and probabilists should take ownership of data science, or instead clear up the mess left behind by the savvy, computationally adept, applications-driven researchers who increasingly dominate the area, it is clear that we should embrace data science. Who better than an IMS group to help define and emphasize the role of statistics and probability? I won’t steal their thunder, Sofia and Patrick have promised to write a piece for the Bulletin themselves, but I know that they’d welcome your input, so please do contact them at datascience@imstat.org if you would like to be involved (or even if you just want to make a suggestion).

Groups offer a clear conduit for the flow of ideas between IMS members and those they have entrusted with the leadership of the organisation. They provide a first port of call for the leadership when they are seeking expertise in particular areas and a natural mechanism for members to discuss concerns pertinent to their own interests and raise them with the leadership. We have discovered that most groups struggle to survive in the long term without some intervention, but I very much hope that we can renew our groups and with some minimal governance structures ensure that they adapt and grow with the scientific environment.

Like all our activities, groups rely on input from members. I am acutely aware of the pressures on everyone’s time and am deeply grateful for the time and energy that so many people put into ensuring that the scientific activities of the IMS are of the very highest quality. A concern that I have mirrors my experience in other parts of my academic life. In refreshing the committee membership for 2017–18, I had to guard against always calling on the “usual suspects” or people I’d previously worked with, not least as they are slightly more likely to respond to my emails than people I have never (e-)met. How can we involve more members?

The selfless contributions of members benefit the entire community, members and non-members alike. IMS membership has been falling—not rapidly, but enough to make me feel that we need to find a better way to articulate the benefits of membership. At first sight it seems that by joining, one just exposes oneself to the risk of being asked to take on yet more work. But turning this on its head, by joining, one is in a position to help shape the scientific programme of the IMS and make an important contribution to the profession. I did ask a few people at the JSM what they saw as the benefits of membership, or why they had allowed IMS membership to lapse. One person I spoke to, who had recently rejoined, expressed regret that he had ever allowed membership to lapse. Why? “I really like being part of the IMS community.” I myself joined because Ruth Williams asked me to serve on the Committee on Special Lectures, but added that she seemed to remember that I wasn’t actually a member of the IMS, and this was a requirement, so would I please join. I always do as Ruth asks, and so I joined. I have never looked back. From my perspective, perhaps the most rewarding aspect of being involved has been the opportunity to meet so many truly remarkable people.

I left the JSM with an immense sense of pride in the IMS. The IMS is a badge of academic quality; we publish outstanding journals and our Committee on Special Lectures had excelled in their contribution to the scientific programme. But most of all, the IMS is a community of scholars that supports and nourishes talent from right across the spectrum of our discipline. I think that I am looking forward to the next ten months. I have Jon, Xiao-Li, the Council and of course Elyse to bounce ideas off, to keep me on the straight and narrow, and to ensure that things actually happen. But I need your help too. Tell me what you want from your society. What do you like about the IMS? What do you dislike about the IMS? And, of course, if you would like to be more involved in any aspect of our activities, or if you have suggestions for improving the IMS or for new IMS initiatives, then please don’t hesitate to contact me at president@imstat.org.

Finally, here is your homework assignment:

1. What should the IMS do to remain relevant to our members?

2. How can we articulate the benefits of membership?

3. What more can we do to increase awareness of each other’s
academic activities?

…and a bonus question:

4. Can anyone think of a single term that captures probability and statistics?

Send in solutions to the President’s mailbox as soon as you can—I don’t have long.

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