NSF Name Change Proposal Suggests A Preference For Stovepipes

ScienceInsider reported yesterday that a proposed name change for a division of the National Science Foundation (NSF) has been tabled.  The Director of the Division of Mathematical Sciences discussed the idea of making it the Division of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences in a letter dated last fall.  A report prepared to collect input from the researchers funded by this division indicated strong resistance to the name change, or at least the implications of that change – a change in mission for that division.

Statistics research actually permeates NSF.  The Foundation has a National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (located in a different directorate than the Division of Mathematical Sciences).  Researchers in all disciplines are collecting immense amounts of data, which means statistical work is more important to folks outside of the field.

The Division director suggested the name change because he believes it would make it easier to obtain resources for statistics research.  His reasoning seems to be that the name change would make the NSF presence in this area more known in the areas where there could be opportunity.  Others have opposed the name change on effectively opposite grounds – that the increased attention to the discipline within NSF would cause (or exacerbate tensions).  The reasoning here is that in a resource-poor environment, name changes are insufficient to bring additional money, and increased attention without an increased ability to do something about it doesn’t benefit anyone.

Resources or not, I anticipate the demand for statistical information, and for those who can do top level statistical research, will increase.  The discussion over the name change reflects an understanding of this, and a need to make sure that at least this part of the federal research enterprise tries to keep up.

For now the division will keep the current name, but be more explicit in mentioning statistics in correspondence and funding opportunities.  If NSF is serious about “supporting the research necessary to maximize the benefits to be derived from the age of data, and to promoting and funding research related to data-centric scientific discovery and innovation” the conversation around this name change will have to continue.  It isn’t really about the name change, and part of the challenge moving forward is figuring out how to support research in statistics done by those who wouldn’t identify as mathematicians or statisticians.

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