Statistics, according to Professor Caroline Brophy, an Associate Professor of Statistics at Trinity, is the ability to give data meaning. “Statistics is really about making a story from data,” Brophy says. “It’s really about bringing data to life.”
Data refers to units of information that are collected through observation. These days, our ability to collect data is staggering. With new technology and machine learning, the amount of data we collect is impressive. In 2012, it was noted that over 90% of the world’s data has been created in the last two years, and this has only increased with time. However, large amounts of data are meaningless if there is nothing to interpret from it. The role of a statistician? To create something meaningful from these data sets.
Though there is data to be collected everywhere, the main focus of Brophy’s research is in understanding biodiversity and ecosystems, fields that are no doubt crucial when discussing climate change. She started her academic career wanting to teach but discovered throughout college that she had loved statistics. “I got an opportunity to work in the Department of Statistics in UCD,” she said. “I was teaching in the computer labs, combining my two passions for a little while. It was then that I started to do some research, and think about the environment based applications.”
Now, she is a researcher and associate professor in the School of Computer Science and Statistics (SCSS). “I get the best of both worlds because I get to teach and I get to do research in a field that I find very interesting and am passionate about.”
One of Brophy’s first research projects had been observing the effects of climate change on an invasive species which affected people with allergies. This project, which linked environment and health, is an early example of her research focus; sustainability, agriculture, and climate issues.
“By adapting and creating models to help encompass the effects of climate change, we have a better understanding of the impacts and effects of global warming.”
It is not often that we associate mathematics and statistics with a fight against climate change, but the role of a statistician is indisputably important when it comes to environment-based research. Statisticians create models which represent mathematical relationships between variables. Because statistics has a grounding in maths, many of the modelling tools developed by statisticians can be applied to a wide variety of disciplines. “From a research perspective, it’s about taking statistical tools, but adapting them to particular situations.” By adapting and creating models to help encompass the effects of climate change, we have a better understanding of the impacts and effects of global warming.
Additionally, a statistician provides a more detailed understanding of the parameters in certain mathematical models when it comes to modelling a real-world issue. “I work with a lot of ecologists, they’ll have a background in maths but their training is in ecology. So they have an understanding of the statistics from a higher level, rather than a detailed level”, Brophy said. She also stressed the importance of open communication: “The lines of communication between a statistician and those with environmental training is key.” The research that is done to better understand our environment can never be done with only one discipline, but with many researchers working together to create better understanding and knowledge.
Not only is statistics of importance in climate research, but also in policymaking. The United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) states that “accurate statistics on climate change drivers, impacts, vulnerability, mitigation and adaptation are of critical importance to support global environmental policies.”
““When it comes to a statistical model, there is no black and white… it’s often about weighing up the probabilities”, Brophy says.”
Statisticians are necessary for probability-based decision making. “When it comes to a statistical model, there is no black and white… it’s often about weighing up the probabilities”, Brophy says. “If we go down this road, what are the probabilities and consequences associated with them? Whereas if we go down this road, what are the probabilities and consequences associated with that?.” With hard evidence and probabilities to back up certain decisions, this allows for better-informed policymaking, which benefits everyone.
The research done, and policy decisions made, require interpretations of data. Even though the collection of data is more than we could have previously perceived, Brophy expressed that gathering information from data is at the forefront of research: “What we have is huge volumes of data; but we don’t want big data, we want big information. So if your data set is small, and you get big information from it, that’s brilliant.”
This is not to say that large data sets are not useful. Open science is the movement to make scientific research accessible to all levels of scientists. The benefit of open science is that even if one researcher chooses to focus on one aspect of the data set, other researchers can use other parts of the data set to gain new insights. “If you have someone that does an experiment, and they collect a certain amount of data, it wouldn’t necessarily be considered big data. They could focus on one part of the data, or maybe one or two responses. But they may have collected more. And if they make it open once they’re finished with it, other people can come in and use that data again and again and gain more valuable information.”
Last year, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) funded a research project which involved looking at the statistical method for the biodiversity and ecosystem function relationships. Brophy is currently developing statistical models which are able to handle more complex situations, which include multiple species, multiple responses, visualisation, and more.
“Science Foundation Ireland funding this work really shows that this type of work is really important”, she said. “It validates the statistical work and shows that it is valued. It’s really great to have that kind of support and know that this support is out there.” Some other projects she is working on include species diversity in Ethiopia, as well as overseeing a PhD project on how drought affects single-species grass versus multiple species grass.
“Whilst there are no easy ways to solve the issue of climate change, statistics education and research are fundamental in the search for a more sustainable planet.”
The work of statisticians is meaningful and increasingly relevant in a time where we have large amounts of data and complex problems that require many minds working together. Whilst there are no easy ways to solve the issue of climate change, statistics education and research are fundamental in the search for a more sustainable planet.