Harnessing Data

There is no doubt we live in an ever evolving and developing world. That brings huge challenges, and only by understanding our world better can we make the best informed decisions across policy and commercial spheres, and in our own lives. Data sets, comprising the ultimate sources of the facts on which to base analyses, are fundamental to how we understand the world around us.

Never before has data been so important, whether in our daily lives, or in tackling the big issues of the day –food security, energy sources, population growth. However data can be difficult to manage, both in the sheer quantity now available, and how it is used.

Across SEFARI we are working on how we can better interpret and use data to improve science and help society, and this inspired how we styled our 2017 SEFARI Science for Life lecture. This series of annual lectures has been running for around ten years, with an aim to inspire current and future scientists to tackle key challenges.

This year’s lecture, hosted by Biomathematics & Statistics Scotland (BioSS), was titled ‘Harnessing All Available Data to Inform Agricultural Policy and Industry’. The lecture was given, to an audience of over 100 guests, colleagues and students, by Dr Linda Young on Tuesday 13th June 2017 at the Royal Society for Edinburgh.

Dr Young is the Chief Mathematical Statistician and Director of Research and Development, National Agricultural Statistics Service, US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Dr Young said

“I’m delighted to have been given this opportunity to talk about our work in the USDA and to learn about how Scottish Government funded strategic research and translational activities are structured and delivered by the SEFARI collective.”

In her lecture Dr Linda Young described how techniques in the USA are integrating privately owned data with publicly available data (often collected by the USDA). Dr Young outlined how advanced statistical methodologies are used to consider the nature and complexities of the data sets themselves – and so improve their interpretation.

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At the heart of Dr Young’s work is a recognition that the data sets used will be incomplete and so will bring with them a degree of uncertainty (for example they may contain a particular bias one way or another). Although the challenges of collating, improving and analysing such data sets are substantial, addressing these challenges is enabling staff in the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service to better inform government for policy development, as well as delivering great value to the farming community, and in guiding production and investment decisions.

In response to Linda’s presentation, BioSS’s Director, David Elston said “the approach Linda takes to her work is similar to the one we promote within BioSS. We aim to identify the quantitative issues at the heart of important problems then apply and if necessary adapt or sometimes even create rigorous methods of analysis that address these key issues.”

The lecture is linked to an annual event where representatives from the 300+ PhD students supervised across SEFARI describe their work, which collectively makes a very substantial contribution to the research capabilities and achievements of SEFARI.

Presentations delivered by twelve students showcased the breadth and depth of environment, food and agriculture research being undertaken within SEFARI.  The students described some of the vital scientific work being undertaken to address important issues including: reducing the incidence of obesity; protecting farm animals against diseases; and increasing the productivity of crop plants.  The student’s presentations and their responses to audience questions were graded, and prizes were awarded.

David Elston

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