At last year’s Joint Statistical Meeting in San Diego, Joseph Gastwirth, Professor of Statistics and Economics at George Washington University won the prestigious Gottfried E. Noether Senior Scholar Award for ‘outstanding contributions to the theory, applications, and teaching of nonparametric statistics’ (Amstat News, 1st October 2012).
Throughout his outstanding career, Professor Gastwirth has taught at many reputable institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University and was formerly a Visiting Advisor for the Office of Statistical Policy in the Executive Office of the President of the United States. Statistics Views talks to Professor Gastwirth about his work on nonparametric and robust methods, his book Statistical Science in the Courtroom, his current research on connecting art with statistics and working for then President Nixon.
An interview with the winner of the Gottfried E. Noether Young Scholar Award, Professor Guang Cheng, will follow next week.
1. Congratulations on winning the Gottfried E. Noether Senior Scholar Award for 2012. With the exceptional teaching career that you are continuing to enjoy, what was it in the first place that inspired you to pursue a career in statistics and mathematics? When and how did you first become aware of statistics as a discipline?
Math was my favourite subject in school and fortunately I was good at it. I guess I was pre-destined to work in an area with a heavy quantitative component. While every boy interested in sports learns about “statistics” like batting averages of ball players, only in college and graduate school did I learn about the discipline of statistics and its mathematical (probabilistic) foundations.
2. From 1971-1972, you were a Visiting Advisor for the Office of Statistical Policy in the Executive Office of the President. What did the role entail and did you get the opportunity to meet the then President Nixon?
In 1970 (approximately) the President appointed a Commission to review the Federal Statistical Operation. The late Prof. Fred Mosteller of Harvard served as Vice-Chair and suggested that the government bring in some academics for a one-year visit. I had done some research on measuring income inequality using Census data, so initially I was asked to look into projects relating to labour market statistics. At the time, the local area unemployment rates were being used to allocate five billion dollars to high unemployment areas for job-training. I noticed that part of one of the optional formulas had the effect of excluding minorities who worked in jobs that were not covered by Unemployment Insurance. So we developed a correction factor to adjust for this. I think it made that option more complex, so most places used a different one that was less biased.
During that year several new projects came up. As the regular staff had a full portfolio of tasks already, I was asked to work on two of them. One was the use of statistical data to assist in enforcing the equal employment laws. The other was estimating the number of “heroin addicts”. The second one started out in an odd way. In February 1972, President Nixon gave a TV speech in which he stated that the nation’s number one problem was heroin addiction. I actually had listened to it. Sometime the next day, the head of the Statistical Policy Office asked me to come by. It turned out that nobody could answer the following question: How many heroin addicts were there in the U.S. at that time? They formed an inter-agency panel and I was asked to assist the OMB representative, Robert Pearl from our office.
3. You continue to teach at George Washington University and have taught at many reputable institutions such as MIT and Harvard. As a university professor, what do you think the future of teaching statistics will be? What do you think will be the upcoming challenges in engaging students?
As P.T. Barnum said, predictions are very hard to make, especially about the future. The internet and other technological developments will continue to have an impact on university education. With the financial pressure on many Western governments, my guess is that the funds available for both teaching and research will grow at a much slower rate than in the period since WWII. One consequence may be that students will take more on-line classes from “master teachers” perhaps with a once-a-week discussion session (in smaller groups) with a faculty member at their university.
One challenge that is already happening is getting the students to focus on the lecture during class, rather than search the web with their iPhones and laptops for email etc. I heard that Harvard Law School is even thinking about banning laptops from class because their students are paying less attention in class.
4. In relation to the above question, do you think that statistics undergraduates and postgraduates starting out today are under more pressure to publish and to obtain grants than when you were a student yourself?