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Copyright © 2006, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Biometry and biometrics
The title of this contribution and my affiliation may suggest I am working in a discipline broadly concerned with the measurement of human body characteristics for security or other purposes. It is no true, but the confusion between my profession, established about a century ago, and security biometrics, is fully understandable.
My discipline is known under the names statistics, biometry, biostatistics, etc. We view all of these names as directed at the same general enterprise of the use and development of statistical theory and methods to address design, analysis, and interpretation of information in the biological sciences. Our work has always been and continues to be of great importance in the conduct of scientific investigations in agriculture, life sciences in general, ecology, forestry, medicine, public health, and a host of other endeavors. As such, we are a fundamental cog in the wheel of scientific inquiry. New challenges and opportunities have come around, with advances in technology that have allowed amazing amounts of information to be collected and stored and with an increasingly complex health-care and public health landscape associated with dizzying arrays of new pharmaceutical products and medical procedures and growing interest among the public in assessing their risks and benefits.
The International Biometric Society
The International Biometric Society, being the learned Society dedicated to our field. In its Volume 106, No. 2757, published October 31, 1947, Science reported: “International Biometric Society Formed at Woods Hole Conference.” The mission statement of the Society read: “An International Society Devoted to the Mathematical and Statistical Aspects of Biology”, expanded into its longer version: “The Biometric Society is an international society for the advancement of quantitative biological science through the development of quantitative theories and the application, development and dissemination of effective mathematical and statistical techniques. To this end, the society welcomes to membership biologists, mathematicians, statisticians and others interested in applying similar techniques.”
The IBS is in a unique position to address the challenge of enhancing understanding of and appreciation for our contributions and expertise among scientists and the public alike and have a greater role in public discourse where interpretation of information is a key aspect. Never has this been more important than with the explosion of data collection in areas like genomics, medical imaging, environmental and bioterrorism surveillance; with the increasing reliance on sophisticated mathematical modeling to explain biological phenomena; and with the increasing public focus on displaying “statistics” at every turn and disseminating results of studies such as those on mammography and hormone replacement therapy.
There are threats as well. Computer scientists, applied mathematicians, physicists, and others are claiming these areas, in many cases “reinventing the wheel” or, worse, using inappropriate approaches. It is our belief that we have a fundamental responsibility as a society to be an important partner here. For the extent to which it has not happened, we are partly to blame ourselves. All statistically oriented societies, not just IBS, have tended in the past to look inward rather than outward, and we have neglected to capitalize sufficiently on the potential role we could have in educating domain scientists and the public on the importance of our discipline in all aspects of modern life. At the same time, we are convinced that issues affecting the future of the workings of the society and the future of the profession are inextricably linked.
Two decades ago, “pure science” was considered “better science”. The best students went on to pure mathematics, with the applied branches left to the others. Important breakthroughs in the last decade, primarily in the field of molecular biology and (computational) technology, have made it increasingly clear that the future is bright for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary efforts.
It would be natural to think that, by the very nature of our profession, we have a competitive advantage. Not only do we contribute significantly in a scientific way, as evidenced by the large number of journal articles and books in statistical genetics, bioinformatics, and computational biology but we also have a long tradition of collaboration across disciplines, with the journal Biometrika being century-old and the IBS-sponsored journal Biometrics having half a century of tradition as well. However, while Stanford's Bio-X banner, a joint effort of science and medicine, rightly puts biology in the center, surrounded by partner sciences, biometry or biostatistics is completely absent. The argument is that we are embraced by the term “information sciences”, but other sciences, such as medicine, are not put under an umbrella term.
The “Other Biometrics”
As stated in the introduction, recent global events have catalyzed the advent of “the other biometrics” or “security biometrics”. While we ourselves are still unsure as to whether to call our field biometry, biometrics, biostatistics, medical statistics, etc. our retina scanning and fingerprinting colleagues have their public relations act together. In no time, such societies as the Biometrics Institute and the International Behavioral & Medical Biometrics Society have formed. On Friday, June 18, 2004, the British newspaper the Guardian wrote: “Biometrics-great hope for world security or triumph for Big Brother?” We can take different attitudes to such evolutions like questioning the scientific basis of such initiatives, regretting their choice of terminology or just ignoring it.
Alternatively and more constructively, we can try to build bridges and explore ways in which we can collaborate, provide scientific input and, perhaps, avoid having them reinvent the wheel, as we could have done in statistical genetics and bioinformatics, or even prevent calamities from happening by offering access to our expertise in a collaborative effort. In this spirit, the IBS welcomes all opportunities for interaction and collaboration with our colleagues from the other biometrics, with the similarity of names a happy catalyzing coincidence rather than a source of disagreement.
Geert Molenberghs President of the International Biometric Society, Center for Statistics, Hasselt University, Diepenbeek, Belgium