Archive for Nature

Paris-Saclay campus debated in Nature

Posted in Books, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2020 by xi'an

The newly created entity of the Paris-Saclay University is featuring in two editorials of Nature of 03 November for reaching a high ranking in one of the many league tables purportedly summarising the academic achievements of universities by a single number. This entity is made of the much older Université d’Orsay and of aggregated research institutes like Ecole Normale (formerly) de Cachan, Institut d’Optique, or Centrale Supélec, incidentally and uninterestingly located nearby my home. As an aggregate of high quality institutions, it is thus little surprise that it achieves a sufficient critical mass to reach a high ranking. Were the nearby Institut Polytechnique de Paris integrated as well, the ranking would have been even higher. (Why the two adjacent campuses did not merge defies rationality, but can be explained by politics and the long-standing opposition between Universités and Grandes Écoles in the French academic landscape.) I thus think the Nature editorial about the dangers to “the well-being of those on the academic front line” brought by the quest for high rankings is missing the point. By a fair margin. Indeed, it mixes the financial and institutional efforts made by [former president] Nicolas Sarkozy in creating a single campus with the funding of this mostly pre-existing campus [and in dire need of renovations, as exemplified by the new math department]. And seems to see the more competitive grant system in France connected with this creation when the [somewhat controversial] Agence Nationale de la Recherche in charge of the public-funded grants has been around since 2005. And I find that the unceasingly growing mille-feuille of aggregates, conglomerates, unions, initiatives, &tc. happening in the French academic landscape [like Paris Dauphine joining PSL a few years ago, whose status was confirmed today] are both blurring the picture and reducing the efficiency of the maneuvers by multiplying the administrative structures without creating a sense of belonging to a common institution. Plus ça change…

undermining research advice has been accompanied by the systematic dismantling of scientific capacity in regulatory science agencies

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures with tags , , , , , on October 17, 2020 by xi'an

democracy suffers when government statistics fail [review of a book review]

Posted in Books, Statistics, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2020 by xi'an

This week, rather extraordinarily!, Nature book review was about official statistics, with a review of Julia Lane’s Democratizing our Data. (The democratizing in the title is painful to watch, though!) The reviewer is Beth Simone Noveck, who was deputy chief technology officer under Barack Obama and a major researcher in digital democracy, excusez du peu! (By comparison, Trump’s deputy chief technology officer had a B.A. in politics and no other qualification for the job, but got nonetheless promoted to chief…)

“Lane asserts that the United States is failing to adequately track its population, economy and society. Agencies are stagnating. The census dramatically undercounts people from minority racial groups. There is no complete national list of households. The data are made available two years after the count, making them out of date as the basis for effective policy making.” B.S. Noveck

The debate raised by the book on the ability of official statistics to keep track of people in a timely manner is most interesting. And not limited to the USA, even though it seems to fit in a Hell of its own:

“In the United States, there is no single national statistical agency. The process of gathering and publishing public data is fragmented across multiple departments and agencies, making it difficult to introduce new ideas across the whole enterprise. Each agency is funded by, and accountable to, a different congressional committee. Congress once sued the commerce department for attempting to introduce modern techniques of statistical sampling to shore up a flawed census process that involves counting every person by hand.” B.S. Noveck

This remark brings back to (my) mind the titanesque debates of the 1990s when Republicans attacked sampling techniques and statisticians like Steve Fienberg rose to their defence. (Although others like David Freedman opposed the move, paradoxically mistrusting statistics!) The French official statistic institute, INSEE, has been running sampled census(es) for decades now, without the national representation going up in arms. I am certainly being partial, having been associated with INSEE, its statistics school ENSAE and its research branch CREST since 1982, but it seems to me that the hiring of highly skilled and thoroughly trained civil servants by this institute helps in making the statistics it produces more trustworthy and efficient, including measuring the impact of public policies. (Even though accusations of delay and bias show up regularly.) And in making the institute more prone to adopt new methods, thanks to the rotation of its agents. (B.S. Noveck notices and deplores the absence of reference to foreign agencies in the book.)

“By contrast, the best private-sector companies produce data that are in real time, comprehensive, relevant, accessible and meaningful.”  B.S. Noveck

However, the notion in the review (and the book?) that private companies are necessarily doing better is harder to buy, if an easy jab at a public institution. Indeed, public official statistic institutes are the only one to have access to data covering the entire population, either directly or through other public institutes, like the IRS or social security claims. And trusting the few companies with a similar reach is beyond naïve (even though a company like Amazon has almost an instantaneous and highly local sensor of economic and social conditions!). And at odds for the call of democratizing, as shown by the impact of some of these companies on the US elections.

Nature Computational Science

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , on September 16, 2020 by xi'an

The Nature group is launching a series of new on-line-only journals, including Nature Computational Science which could be of interest to some readers of the ‘Og. It is rather unfortunate that statistics is not explicitly mentioned in the list below. And that the only acknowledged editors are the chief editor, Fernando Chirigati, and the consulting edutor, Yann Sweeney. Nature does not have an editorial board in the standard way

Nature Computational Science is a multidisciplinary journal that focuses on the development and use of computational techniques and mathematical models, as well as their application to address complex problems across a range of scientific disciplines. The journal publishes both fundamental and applied research, from groundbreaking algorithms, tools and frameworks that notably help to advance scientific research, to methodologies that use computing capabilities in novel ways to find new insights and solve challenging real-world problems. By doing so, the journal creates a unique environment to bring together different disciplines to discuss the latest advances in computational science.
Disciplines covered by Nature Computational Science include, but are not limited to:
  • Bioinformatics
  • Cheminformatics
  • Geoinformatics
  • Climate Modeling and Simulation
  • Computational Physics and Cosmology
  • Applied Math
  • Materials Science
  • Urban Science and Technology
  • Scientific Computing
  • Methods, Tools and Platforms for Computational Science
  • Visualization and Virtual Reality for Computational Science

Another new Nature on-line journal of potential interest is Nature Reviews Methods Primers, albeit it focusses on life science and physics:

Nature Reviews Methods Primers is an online-only journal publishing high-quality Primer articles covering analytical, applied, statistical, theoretical and computational methods used in the life and physical sciences.

counting COVID-19 deaths (or not)

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2020 by xi'an

Two COVID-19 articles in the recent issue of Nature relating to data gathering issues. One on the difficulty to distinguish direct COVID deaths from indirect ones from the excess deaths, which “to many scientists, it’s the most robust way to gauge the impact of the pandemic” (which I supported). As indeed the COVID pandemic reduced people access to health care, both because health structures were overwhelmed and because people were scared of catching the virus when visiting these structures. The article [by Giuliana Viglione] supports the direct exploitation of death certificates, to improve the separation, quoting Natalie Dean from the University of Florida in Gainesville. Although this creates a strong lag in the reporting and hence in health policy decisions. (Assuming the overall death reporting is to be trusted, which is not the case for all countries.)

“This long-standing neglect has been exacerbated by the lack of national leadership during the pandemic.”

The other article is about the reasons why the COVID-19 crisis in the US is doubled by a COVID-19 data crisis. Mentioning “political meddling, privacy concerns and years of neglect of public-health surveillance systems” as some of the sources for unreliable data on the pandemic range and evolution. Hardly any contact tracking (as opposed to South Korea or Vietnam), a wealth of local, state and federal structures, data diverted and hence delayed (or worse) to a new system launched by the US Department for Health and Human Services (HHS) for an ill-used $10 million. And data often shared (or lost) by fax! “Lack of leadership,” to state the obvious….