Attending the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) conference

Alex Welsh, Social Statistics, Lancaster University (2019 Cohort)

In September, I went to a conference. In a normal year, this wouldn’t be a particularly unusual development, but it’s 2021, 18-months after the start of lockdown part I, and this conference was IN-PERSON. The Royal Statistical Society (RSS) conference was the first not on Zoom/Teams that I’ve attended since starting my PhD two years ago. Although four days in Manchester wasn’t quite the same as a jaunt to Bilbao (the formerly planned location of another online conference I’d attended), I was excited to get out of my home office and meet new people in my field.

The first event on my schedule was a pre-conference early-career statistician workshop, run by the Young Statisticians Section (YSS) of the RSS. This gave me an opportunity to meet people at a similar career stage; we were mostly PhD students, with a few post-doctoral researchers and recent starters in industry in the mix. The workshop itself was really good, the highlight being a session on how to prepare and give a top-quality presentation on your research. The YSS also organised a lunchtime meet for the first day of the conference, where we played a game of icebreaker bingo and had time to network more casually.

The main body of the conference consisted of some keynote lectures and a wide range of parallel sessions each day. Of the keynotes, my favourite was that given by Tom and Dave Chivers on the topic of misrepresentation of statistics in the media. The prevalence of clickbait headlines with outrageous figures seems like it has only increased recently, so their talk exploring where some of these numbers originate and how we can improve public statistical literacy felt very apt. The keynote panel discussion on the RSS’s role during the Covid-19 pandemic included similar ideas about communicating important data to the public, as well as novel and interesting parts of the statistical work behind the handling of the pandemic in the UK.

Although lots of the parallel sessions also focused on Covid-19, there was a varied selection of other topics covered. Main themes throughout the conference included statistics for medicine, the environment, and industry, as well as sessions focused on methodology, communicating statistics, and data science. One session I attended was on novel advances in Bayesian health economics; a very useful set of talks for me, as my research focuses on improving the statistics used within healthcare cost-effectiveness models. Another fantastic session was the “Reviewing for a Clinical Journal” panel discussion, which showed me way to use my knowledge in a way I hadn’t considered before. It was also a nice surprise to find that one of the presenters was someone I had worked with virtually, but not had an opportunity to meet in person yet.

Overall, my first “real” conference was a fantastic opportunity to learn about the wider world of statistics and its applications outside of my niche. I’m very grateful to the NWSSDTP, as without the funding offered by them I would not have been able to attend. Hopefully with the easing of restrictions (and no rise in Covid-19 cases!) more people will be able to experience in-person conferences and have the full PhD experience.

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