Whither Environmental Statistics: where we’ve been, where we are, and some places we need to go

Photo of Walt Piegorsch

Walt Piegorsch

Early in March (of 2013), I had the honor and the pleasure of attending the SAMSI-SAVI Workshop on Environmental Statistics — an area of interest I’ve had for many years.  We convened in SAMSI’s HQ in RTP, NC, just up the street from the EPA (environmental statistics has sooooo many acronyms, doesn’t it?).  It was good timing: the weather was starting to turn nice in North Carolina.  (Well, actually, it was a bit cool for me — I’m in Arizona — but a number of my co-attendees from the frozen north were thrilled at how *warm* it was!  Global climate change at work…)  The workshop only lasted a few days, but I was enlivened by the energy it possessed.  Besides hearing some cutting-edge material presented during the talks, all attendees had a chance to interact and cogitate on the endeavor that is environmental statistics, during coffee breaks, on-site lunches, and a valuable set of breakout sessions one afternoon.  Well-designed workshop!  Indeed, in what was essentially only a two-day period I was able to give a talk on my own area of interest (environmental risk assessment), discuss the issue with many interested co-attendees, and then develop ideas with four attending co-authors for three different follow-up papers.  (Well, hopefully:  we came up with some great outlines — now all we have to do is write the manuscripts!)

room of people at tables

During a talk at the SAMSI-SAVI workshop focusing on environmental statistics

One theme I took from the workshop was, broadly speaking, ‘Whither Environmental Statistics’?  This is just my own opinion, of course, but the sense I got was that (1) we’re further along than we’ve ever been, but (2) there’s lots farther to go.  (Hmmm, maybe that’s why SAMSI held the workshop…)

This theme emerged during a lunch break, when SAMSI director Richard Smith and I had a chance to reflect on a paper we wrote — back in, cough, cough, 1998 — which aimed to (start to) bring the broad diversity of problems in environmental statistics into a cohesive light.  In retrospect, we both agreed that it was a good beginning — environmental science and with it environmental statistics had opened up in the early 1990s and was starting to get some traction by then.  Despite the advances made since, however, there’s still so much more to do (and so little time, sigh…).  Stimulating, but unanswered statistical questions abound in:

  • Climate change (which these days seems to always lead the list)
  • spatio-temporal modeling (which seems to always follow second)
  •  environmental security
  •  third-world challenges, including agricultural advancement, large-scale ecological damage, pesticide exposure (and not just in the third world…)
  •  informatics/”big” data (There’s lots of it. With more on the way.)
  • educating the next generation of environmetricians (and, getting more folks interested in working on these problems)
  • environmental sensing/sensor networks
  • incorporating prior knowledge into these problems via Bayesian methods
  •  new, efficient computer algorithms (for addressing *all* of the above)

to name just a few…  (Add your own favorite here: ____________________________ )

A decidedly mixed list, which seems daunting at first blush.  But, the good news is that along with us ‘seasoned veterans,’ there were many younger minds among the attendees, and we all seemed up to the challenge.  As I said, the energy was infectious, and fun too.  So, let’s get started!  (Indeed, I should probably stop blogging and get to those papers.  My co-authors are waiting…)

group shot of the attendees

SAMSI-SAVI workshop on environmental statistics.