Appreciating the Shade, Planting for the Future

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The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.
– Nelson Henderson

While reading Jay Shetty’s book Think Like a Monk, I was reminded of the quote above. As I finish my term as ISI President, this quote resonates strongly. I believe that the true meaning of service to professional societies might be similarly interpreted.

I am writing this column around the time of the ISI ‘birthday’ – the ISI was created on 24 June 1885. Consider the generations of statisticians who preceded us. They established a structure for hosting World Statistics Congresses, adding associations and interest groups, connecting to national statistical offices and providing the support of ISI activities through a permanent office.

Did these early ISI members appreciate that the work that they were doing in establishing and promoting good statistical practice in official statistics would be a foundation for later contributions? It is amazing to see the recent and current leaders of national statistical offices and the United Nations Statistical Commission who are connected with ISI and are leaders of our society.

Could these early members of ISI imagine a pandemic? While we continue to address the challenges and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, these early ISI members lived through the pandemic of 1918. The first World Statistics Congress (WSC) was in Rome in 1887. The 14th WSC was in Vienna in 1913 and the 15th WSC in Brussels in 1923. I can only imagine the discussions that ISI leaders had about what to do with WSCs during World War I and the 1918 pandemic. Since physical meetings were the only option, a gap in meetings was the only option. Technology today gives us options for 2021 that would be speculative science fiction for these earlier generations.

Would these early generations recognize that their  gifts of time, talent and treasure would provide the flexibility for ISI to meet evolving challenges? In one of my previous columns reflecting on ISI Strategic Priorities, financial stability was mentioned as a goal. Our ability to pivot first to an ISI-hosted and organized in-person WSC and then to a fully virtual WSC 2021 was made possible by the financial reserves built by the generations of ISI members that came before us. Our operating budget is supported by interest income produced by investments of reserves. I am truly grateful for the ‘shade’ provided by trees planted by early ISI members.

I am truly grateful for the ‘shade’provided by trees planted by early ISI members.

Was the promotion of statistical practice, research and education part of the consideration of these early members? They established publications of ISI and Associations that are now maintained, promoted and enhanced by current ISI members. The foundation was established for rich meetings with statisticians from many backgrounds who work in many sectors to learn from each other.

Initially, ISI members were exclusively elected senior statisticians, male and predominately based in Europe. While they may not have imagined a future ISI with regular membership categories, a young statisticians committee and a committee on women in statistics, the framework was in place for all of these activities to emerge and to be promoted within the ISI.

What trees are we planting now?

Like our predecessors, we share a value and appreciation for our discipline. While the practice of statistics and data analysis evolved over the first 100 years of ISI, it continues during the second 100 years with an expanded view that includes data science. How will our efforts to explore the role of ISI in data science impact the practice and the impact of ISI?

We are about to host the first ISI WSC that employed a new model where we call for bids from potential host countries and cities. While WSC 2021 is a virtual conference this July, will our future WSCs include both in-person and virtual components? Will this allow for the participation of a broader range of statisticians from around the world who are unable to attend a face-to-face meeting as a consequence of the expense of travel, registration and more? Who from these participants will be the next leaders of our society? Our efforts to promote regional statistics conferences (RSCs) were clearly impeded by the pandemic. Will the efforts to put a framework for such RSCs result in an opportunity for ISI to connect to new communities of statisticians around the world?

Statistical capacity building is an activity that continues to be a priority for us. Our options to promote statistical capacity building beyond in-person events has increased with the advent of more Regional Statistics Conferences, partnerships with other organizations and the launch of virtual short courses. Will we have a positive impact on the practice of statistics around the world?

As I close this final post of my term as ISI President, let me express my gratitude to the generations of ISI members and staff who came before us and for their tree planting and the shade it has provided us.

As I close this final post of my term as ISI President, let me express my gratitude to the generations of ISI members and staff who came before us and for their tree planting and the shade it has provided us. I am deeply honored to have worked with outstanding colleagues throughout ISI leadership and the ISI permanent office as we worked in partnership to plant trees that we hope will provide the shade for the generations to come.

John Bailer (@john_bailer)
ISI President
05 July 2021


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