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What's in a Name?

A controversial attempt to rename one of the U.S. National Science Foundation's (NSF's) departments is off the table for now. But subtler changes at the agency's Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS) may lie ahead.

The proposal would have added two words to the division's name, making it the Division of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. DMS Director Sastry Pantula floated the idea in a widely circulated letter in October 2011. "Including both disciplines in the name," he wrote, "would allow the Division to effectively leverage the combined resources and support of two very large communities, thus putting the Division in a better position to vie for future resources and be inclusive of the growing statistics community." Pantula, a statistician and former president of the American Statistical Association, also noted that statistical techniques are playing an ever-growing role in science and are key to taming the "data deluge" confronting fields such as astronomy, high-energy physics, and social sciences. Because the field is so multidisciplinary, however, funding for statistical research is spread throughout the agency under a variety of headings.

The proposal sparked an unexpectedly sharp debate. In response to a committee formed to gauge reactions to Pantula's proposal, individual researchers and their professional organizations squared off over turning DMS into MSS.

Mathematicians overwhelmingly opposed the change, arguing that "mathematical sciences" already includes statistics and that singling out one subdiscipline would be divisive, not inclusive. In a letter to mathematicians, Eric Friedlander, president of the American Mathematical Society, noted that Statistics is only one of 10 DMS programs, and in 2010 received less than 10% of the division's research proposals from scientists. "It is natural to ask why Statistics appears to be uniquely selected by DMS for special emphasis," he wrote.

Statisticians and their organizations, however, almost unanimously supported the change as an overdue recognition of the importance of their discipline. "It's important to us that statistics be recognized as an independent, mature discipline, not as a subset of mathematics," says Ronald Wasserstein, executive director of the American Statistical Association.

Yesterday, NSF officials settled the debate—for the moment—by announcing that the name won't change. But the agency will appoint a new external committee to review the role of statistics in science and how NSF should fund statistical research, Edward Seidel, NSF's assistant director for mathematical and physical sciences, said at an advisory committee meeting. NSF will also specifically mention "statistics" alongside "mathematics" in future budget requests and solicitations for research proposals. "It's very clear that statistical science is growing in strength and relevance and importance across all areas of science," Seidel said. "But we decided that it wasn't limited to the DMS division, so we've decided at this time to keep the name as it is."

Pantula says the funding review and the new outreach toward statisticians mark a "positive step" toward putting statistics in the spotlight. "Changes like these take time," he says. "I wasn’t trying to form a new division, but to get recognition. We achieved some of the goals."