In late 2019 the SSA and CSIRO/Data 61 awarded the inaugural Betty Allan Travel award to two recipients. Little did we know at the time that travel, something most of us had taken for granted since we were born, would become next to impossible over the coming years.
In 2022 award recipient Karen Lamb was finally able to make it happen. Here is her report:
Well, as I was soon to learn, 2020 was not a great year to receive a travel award! I had grand plans to use my SSA and CSIRO/Data 61 Betty Allan travel award in September 2020 to attend the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) conference in Bournemouth, following this with a visit to Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter at the Winton Centre for the Public Understanding of Risk in Cambridge and then onto London to meet the RSS team to discuss the Statistical Ambassador Program which trains early career statisticians in statistical communication. My vision was to bring back statistical communication knowledge from these visits to the Statistical Society of Australia. Sadly, by April 2020 it had become very clear that this plan was highly unlikely! More than two years later, I was finally able to take up my award to visit the UK in November 2022 and I certainly learned a lot.
Winton Centre for the Public Understanding of Risk
At the Winton Centre, I was able to learn about David’s transition into work as a statistical communicator. David was already an established leader in Biostatistics internationally and a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) when he took up a position as Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk in the Statistical Laboratory at the University of Cambridge in 2007. This was a philanthropic funded position and was initially a solo role (the Winton Centre was not established for a number of years). In this role, David set about to increase his profile doing outreach activities (e.g., science fares, news articles, talks and media appearances). It took time to build up his reputation in communication. However, he found that once he was known as someone who could communicate risk and uncertainty well, more invitations flowed his way. Some key learnings from David:
1) Communication and media training is invaluable and essential. David personally benefitted from a day and a half of funded training through his work which put him through his paces but helped develop his confidence.
2) Peer support is key. Although he often works alone when engaging with the media, David benefitted from having others around him undertaking similar roles to bounce ideas off.
3) Beware of the draw of flashy headlines. Statisticians are often asked to offer solutions to one-off puzzles about the probability of some rare event occurring. These could help when building your media profile but are rarely rewarding.
4) Statistical communication is vital (but can be stressful!). COVID-19 has helped raise the profile of the work of biostatisticians, enabling David to communicate what we actually do. Although stressful, this was highly rewarding.
Royal Statistical Society Statistical Ambassador Program
The Statistical Ambassador Program, devised by John Pullinger, was launched in 2014 in recognition of the need for confident statistical communicators and has had three cohorts to date. The RSS received funding to support the program, offering ambassadors two days of media training. Telephone mentoring from a committee of statistical/science communicators (e.g., David Spiegelhalter) was also provided. To date, 32 early-career statistical ambassadors (2014: 12, 2016: 10, 2018: 10) have been trained in the program. Ambassadors were selected through a process in which applicants outlined their statistical interests and experiences. It is anticipated that statistical ambassadors remain in this role for a prolonged period. Ambassadors have appeared in different media outlets: BBC News television and print (National Lottery, UK coronavirus figures, reporting of numbers in the media), ITV news (students and COVID, COVID vaccination), among others. Media requests tend to be directed to the RSS Head of Media and External Relations to identify the most appropriate ambassador to assist. Some key learnings:
1) The program is based on training AND peer support which are essential to success.
2) Funding is key but difficult to obtain. The RSS is seeking funding for more programs.
3) It is important to recruit people willing to engage with the media in the longer term. Not all ambassadors have remained engaged in the program.
4) It is important to ensure support from employers. This can be difficult outside academia.
I left the UK with a rejuvenated passion for statistical communication wondering what we can do within the SSA to support media engagement. Would a statistical ambassador program be suitable for the SSA? If so, who could we get to support the ambassadors in Australia? Encouragingly, my contacts within the RSS are keen to build greater connections with the SSA to work on communication initiatives. Personally, I would like to see more communications training and support for statisticians beyond media training. Effective communication is so critical to our work! I look forward to continuing these discussions with both the RSS and SSA in future.
In addition, I am delighted that David Spiegelhalter will be one of the keynotes for the 2023 Australian Statistical Conference in December. We will also be able to learn from his statistical communication experience through a pre-conference workshop. More details will be available soon!
A/Prof Karen Lamb
Co-Head Biostatistics Methods and Implementation Support for Clinical and Health Research Hub (MISCH)
Centre for Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health
Pictured (left to right): Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter and Karen Lamb, Churchill College, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, November 2022
Pictured: Karen Lamb enjoying the rainy Cambridge weather, Churchill College, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, November 2022
Pictured (left to right): Brian Tarran (Head of Data Science Platform, RSS), Mags Wiley (Head of Media and External Relations, RSS), Karen Lamb, Robert Mastrodomenico (Statistical Ambassador, RSS) London, November 2022