Welcome Speech to the 55th Session of the International Statistical Institute by Australian Statistician, Mr Dennis Trewin, Apr 2005

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Welcome Speech to the 55th Session of the International Statistical Institute by Australian Statistician, Mr Dennis Trewin

Parliamentary Secretary, Mr President, ladies and gentleman. Welcome to Sydney, Australia, and the 55th Session of the International Statistical Institute. It has been a long journey for many of you and I am very pleased that you have made the effort.

We are certainly hoping to deliver a successful Conference. And it is most likely to be successful if we all participate - not just in presenting papers - but by being active participants in the discussion and take advantage of the networking opportunities.

We have deliberately made a number of changes to this Conference recognising that there is a need to make changes from time to time to keep in touch with current expectations of Conference participants. Of course, there will be some who prefer the traditional way of doing things.

The costs of Conferences like this are always increasing so we have looked at ways of reducing costs. To us, the most obvious way was to eliminate the printed publications. These are large and expensive and, lets face it, very few participants take them back to their home countries. The papers have been provided on CD-ROM in your registration kit and will be available on the ISI web site. And those who wish to submit to the ISI's scientific journals would be encouraged to do so.

The second change was to introduce theme days - the ones we have included in the program for the 2005 Session are based on the environment, financial statistics and genomics. All are very important topics. Our main motivation is to encourage interaction between professionals working in these fields and statisticians. I will elaborate on this point a little later in my comments.

As you will now realise, 2005 is the centenary year for what is now known as the Australian Bureau of Statistics. It is the prime reason we agreed to host an ISI Session this year. It is also the 120th Anniversary of the International Statistical Institute. Both are long-established organisations with a proud history.

It is important to understand the history of your organisation. What has not changed and what has changed? What have been the key influences that have changed your organisation? Being our centenary year, we have put special effort into this. A history volume is at the advanced stage of preparation. We have provided you with a copy of the overview chapter and an opportunity to tell us if you would like a copy of the full publication when it is available.

History is important because, for successful organisations, it provides a shoulder on which to stand as you address future challenge. As we have reviewed our history, it has become clear that the core purpose of the ABS has not changed. We continue to be charged with providing a relevant and trusted statistical service to governments and the community at large. However, the way we go about satisfying that core purpose has changed dramatically particularly with technological and methodological advances.

This is somewhat different to the ISI. Its core purpose has changed since its inception. Our President, Steve Stigler, wrote a very interesting article in the last issue of the ISI Newsletter on how the ISI has evolved. The most significant change was probably soon after World War II when new statutes were introduced. To quote from Steve's article,

"The new statutes brought two fundamental changes. Before the war, the ISI had sought to influence governmental statistical agencies by facilitating collaboration and by encouraging uniformity in statistical definitions and data collection, but this role was largely taken over by the newly created United Nations. Now the ISI took on a new mission, emphasising international communication among statisticians rather than with governments, and supporting the international promotion and dissemination of research on the theory and practice of statistics. The second major change was in the introduction of the idea of Sections of the ISI, and the formation of several Committees that in many cases lead to the creation of a Section. For the first time, the ISI saw itself as an umbrella organisation reaching well beyond its narrow base of elected members. It was a new type of professional society, one that facilitated international communication among groups of individuals with common interests, not all of them members of the ISI. The ISI was to be the organisational key to international statistics."

It is now time to reassess the core purpose of the ISI again, or at least, the way the ISI family works together. Among other things, the challenges of an ageing membership and a declining revenue base make this an imperative. To quote Steve again,

"Over its long history, the ISI has enjoyed periods of remarkable stability separated by times of well considered and significant change."

There will be opportunities to discuss possible change at this Conference. A Discussion document has been prepared by a Strategic Planning Committee set up by the Executive. This document will be the basis for discussion at an Open meeting on 6 April. If you are interested in the future of the ISI, please get involved.

I also wanted to use this opportunity to make a few comments on the relevance of the statistical profession. As I know it best, I will first talk about the challenges the Australian Bureau of Statistics is facing before making some more general comments. I will only mention few that I think also pertain to most other National Statistical Offices.

First and foremost is maintaining trust. The importance of this was highlighted by the Parliamentary Secretary in his address. But the "moments of truth" that threaten that trust are likely to become more frequent. They can come from the pressure of Governments (although fortunately not in Australia). They can come through important statistics that are proven to be in error. They can come from early release of statistics particularly if they are market sensitive. They can come from privacy advocates arguing that statistical data might be misused. These moments of truth will come. They cannot be avoided. The challenge is how to manage them. An expedient response could reduce short term pressure but undermine trust and therefore the long term relevance of the organisation.

The second issue of relevance I would like to mention is the role of a national statistical office in a national statistical system. The world of statistics is changing and we are moving towards a national statistical system where, even in centralised systems, the national office is only one of the providers of statistics albeit a very important one. A prime reason for the increase in providers of statistics is the advent of administrative data in digital form. Whereas in the past, the national statistical office would normally be expected to produce official statistics based on those systems, this is no longer necessarily the case - the administrating agencies are often best placed to compile the statistics themselves and may want to do so.

In this situation, the national statistical office could be increasingly irrelevant. This should not be the case. Statistical leadership is needed across all national statistics and the national statistical offices are well placed if they are prepared to take the initiative.

Relevance also requires engagement with our key stakeholders. We cannot sit comfortably in our offices and watch the world go by. Official statisticians have to talk and engage with those who provide us with data and those who use our services. We have to participate in their events, not just talk among ourselves, as enjoyable as that might be.

I would now like to move outside the world of official statistics but the key messages of trust, statistical leadership and engagement are still pertinent.

In my Presidential Address in Berlin, "Our profession should be in a position of strength. We live in the information age in which strategic analysis and management of information is crucial to a range of government, business and community activities. Statisticians should have a pivotal role. We are the people best able to design information systems to support statistical analysis. We are best able to establish relationships implicit within data sets, including changes over time. With our understanding of variation, we are best able to present summary information so that it informs in a reliable way".

The state of our profession should be especially robust. Our services should be in high demand. Yet we know our services are not used as often as they should be. The number of young people seeking to be statisticians should be increasing rapidly. Yet in many countries, including Australia, this is not the case. The ageing profile of the ISI membership reflects what is happening in many countries. We love our profession but we are not encouraging enough people to follow in our footsteps.

What can we do to improve this situation? I mentioned several things in my Berlin address but, on reflection, did not sufficiently emphasise the importance of engaging with the users and potential users of our services.

Professional conferences such as the ISI sessions are important for development of statistics and statisticians but they are not the only way we should develop our profession. We also need to engage with our clients.

About 10 years back we started inviting other professional societies to host professional meetings at ISI Sessions. This was a good move but has only had mixed success. In this session we have pushed the theme days further and tried to involve other professional societies in the theme days recognising that they will not want to attend a whole ISI Session. They will mostly be Australian of course but it should still provide some insight into the expectations of these key users of our statistics in these important fields.

To conclude, I would like to acknowledge and thank our major sponsors - SAS, the Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organisation (CSIRO), Space-Time Research and AusAID whose assistance allowed many participants from developing countries to attend the Conference.

There are many individuals who have helped get this Conference off the ground - I won't single them out except to acknowledge the considerable efforts of my colleagues on the National Organising Committee, our Secretariat staff and Tour Hosts, our professional conference organiser.

Enjoy the Conference. Enjoy Sydney, Australia.