June 29, 2016

Higher AIMS: Expanding our Work in International Development

The adoption of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals at the turn of the century – followed by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 – presented a major challenge to statisticians measuring the progress being made towards them. Both sets of goals have, among many other things, highlighted a lack of population data in many poorer countries as well as a dearth of specifically trained people to utilise available data.

These challenges have been recognised by the RSS, which believes that ‘a true data revolution’ is needed in order to properly measure progress of the ambitious new SDGs. In a statement issued on World Statistics Day last year, we urged that ‘systems must be properly financed, the development of statistical skills and expertise must be supported, and access to new tools and technology must be provided.’

The Society has a dedicated group looking to further work in this area. The International Development Working Group (IDWG), set up in 2013, considers how fellows might support statistics and statisticians in poorer countries. One of its initiatives is a partnership with the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), a centre for higher education and research, which promotes mathematics and science in Africa. AIMS is a rapidly growing organisation with established centres in South Africa, Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon, Tanzania, and a new centre in Rwanda due to open this year.

The partnership proposes that the RSS supports suitable fellows who wish to teach an AIMS MSc programme by helping to match candidates and funding their travel costs. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the RSS and AIMS has been recently signed, committing the RSS to cover the air fares of two statisticians teaching at AIMS centres each year, as well as one PhD student tutoring at an AIMS centre for five months. By using visiting lecturers, AIMS is able to train more than 200 students each year at Masters-level for a fraction of the cost that it would take to send its students overseas.

The RSS already has links with AIMS; a number of fellows have lectured there and some, including RSS president Peter Diggle, Ian Plewis, Jen Rogers and Michelle Stanton, are all planning to contribute courses in the current academic year.

There is considerable untapped potential to develop its teaching of statistics. While offers for pure and applied maths are plentiful, AIMS would welcome more statistics and probability courses. A statistics stream is currently being developed in AIMS Tanzania, which is co-ordinating the offers of statistics courses with requests from the six AIMS centres. In 2015-16, the centre ran an introductory course on probability and statistics, with optional courses on climate and agricultural statistics; inferential statistics; bio-informatics, environmental statistics; and geospatial statistics for public health.

For 2016-2017, an introductory course on probability and statistics will be taught by RSS fellow and Roger Stern from the Statistical Services Centre at the University of Reading, in October. Another fellow, Jane Hutton – professor of statistics at the University of Warwick – will give a course on inferential statistics in November. It’s hoped these two courses will provide the basis for subsequent courses.

Fellows who have already been to AIMS as visiting staff believe it is an excellent institution with the power to build a cadre of high calibre local experts with strong mathematical science skills, able to contribute to the continent’s future prosperity. Jane Hutton (pictured left) has become a regular visitor to AIMS and last year gave us an insight into life at the Institute. She is now able to see how her former students are progressing. ‘I met two women whom I had taught at AIMS at a conference at AIMS Tanzania,’ she says. ‘One is teaching in further education in Tanzania, the other is now a statistician with International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Mali.’

RSS president Peter Diggle has also spent time at AIMS Tanzania. ‘The AIMS concept appealed to me since I first heard of it two or three years ago,’ he says. ‘My research into disease mapping methods had led me to several rewarding experiences collaborating on African public health research projects, where I had been struck by the contrast between the very obvious potential for modern statistical methods to contribute, and the shortage of trained statisticians.’

The benefits cut both ways, Peter explains. ‘Teaching at AIMS is both inspiring and humbling,’ he continues. ‘The students operate with very basic accommodation and academic facilities, in spite of which they work enthusiastically to tight deadlines, and engage willingly with new ideas over a wide range of mathematical topics, often without what might normally be regarded as essential pre-requisites (a necessary consequence of the visiting lecturer model). I’m already looking forward to my next visit.’

RSS president elect David Spiegelhalter (pictured right) found his three-week course in probability and stats – which he has taught for two years at AIMS South Africa – a ‘challenging and extremely rewarding experience’. ‘The students come from all over Africa and form a tight group – very sharp, and very keen to convert their strong theoretical training into something more practical,’ he continues. ‘It was also a lot of fun.’

As well as being a visiting lecturer or tutor, there are also opportunities to become a supervisor, the bulk of which is possible to be conducted remotely by phone, skype and/or email. Those who are sponsored by the RSS will be asked to provide a one-to-two-page report on their experiences, which should include suggestions or advice for those who will teach in future.

Along with suitable candidates, the RSS is also seeking donations from fellows to support the initiative, so that the project will be able to cover its own costs. If you would like to contribute to the project, a Just Giving page has been set up.

For more about the Royal Statistical Society, click here.

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