World-leading statistical scientist recognised for contribution to research across the sciences

Distinguished Professor Noel Cressie from the University of Wollongong (UOW) has been elected to the prestigious Australian Academy of Science in recognition of his outstanding contributions to science.

A world leader in statistical methodology and its applications to the environmental sciences, Professor Cressie is Director of UOW’s Centre for Environmental Informatics in the National Institute for Applied Statistics Research Australia and the School of Mathematics and Applied Statistics.

Over the course of his career, he has made vital contributions to spatial and spatio-temporal statistics, statistical theory, and science applications that include pollution monitoring, climate prediction, ocean health, soil chemistry, disease mapping, and glacier movement.

“I’m a statistical scientist and wear that badge proudly,” Professor Cressie said.

“Statistical science is the science of uncertainty, which may seem like a contradiction, but central to what I do is to recognise and then capture uncertainties from all sources.

“We have probability models and statistical methods to wrangle the uncertainties. This core approach gets us involved in many types of applications, including those from the humanities, the social sciences, business and finance, engineering, medicine, biology, and the physical sciences.”

Being able to quantifying uncertainty is essential for scientists, Professor Cressie explains, because the world around us – and within us – is uncertain.

“When scientists take measurements, they know their instruments are not perfect. Scientific theories are uncertain, too. We know that Newton’s laws of motion are not totally right. Einstein modified Newtonian physics with his theory of general relativity, and now we have string theory – there’s uncertainty in all these theories.

“With statistical science we have a way of combining all known sources of uncertainty into something that will tell us science’s best guess as to how the world works – and it will also tell us the uncertainty of that best guess. We call this statistical inference,” Professor Cressie said.

As an example of the importance of quantifying uncertainty, Professor Cressie points to the challenge of climate change, an area he says where statistical science has a vital role to play.

“There will always be people who will deny or dismiss a greenhouse effect on global warming. For example, some people say that the increase in surface temperature is causing the measured increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) and not the other way around. But careful and reproducible science shows that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and the greenhouse effect results in increases in temperature in the lower atmosphere.

“My goal is to put probabilities on competing theories based on the data and the best statistical science available. I think people need to see these odds, which will inform and help mobilise society to do something about the grand challenges facing it, including global warming.”

With regard to environmental science, perhaps Professor Cressie’s best-known research is the work he is doing as a Science Team member of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) project.

OCO-2’s mission is to estimate the global distribution of atmospheric carbon dioxide’s sources and sinks at Earth’s surface in order to understand their role in climate change and, ultimately, how best to mitigate or manage a warming atmosphere.

The OCO-2 satellite orbits Earth every 99 minutes, collecting about 24 soundings a second while in sunlight. These “big data” go through a sequence of processing steps that require sophisticated physical and statistical modelling and carefully derived measures of uncertainty, which enable the team to obtain accurate and precise estimates.

While election as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science confirms him as one of the nation’s most eminent scientists, Professor Cressie describes himself rather more humbly as “sort of an accidental scientist.”

“I found out when I was about 15 that I had some talent in mathematics and I could solve problems that the other kids couldn’t. I wasn’t a genius, but I worked hard and benefitted from university scholarships.

“I chose to follow a career in the application of mathematics – statistics – out of a desire to give something back to society.

“At the time I wasn’t thinking as grandiosely as that, I just wanted to make a difference. So from early on in my career I started working on environmental problems,” he said.

Professor Cressie described his election to the Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science as a “singularly fabulous moment” for him personally, but also as recognition of the contribution that statistical science has been making broadly in scientific endeavours.

“It’s a great time for statistical science,” he said. “Our discipline is emerging from a Cinderella status, and what we have to offer has become appreciated, particularly in the area of big data. We are data scientists, if you like, with a unique ability to recognise and then quantify the uncertainties in the world and the universe in which we live.”

UOW Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings CBE said Professor Cressie’s election as a Fellow of the Academy was richly deserved.

“I would like to congratulate Professor Cressie for this prestigious honour, which recognises his ground-breaking work in statistical methodology and the significant impact he has had in his chosen field,” Professor Wellings said.

“He has pioneered the use of statistical analysis in environmental science and made fundamental contributions to research of global significance. His election as an Australian Academy of Science Fellow is a result of the passion, dedication and innovation he has brought to his work and shows the regard he is held in by his peers.”

ABOUT THE AUSTRALIAN ACADEMY OF SCIENCE

The Australian Academy of Science provides independent, authoritative and influential scientific advice, promotes international scientific engagement, builds public awareness and understanding of science, and champions, celebrates and supports excellence in Australian science.

The Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science is made up of around 500 leading Australian scientists. Scientists judged by their peers to have made an exceptional contribution to knowledge in their field may be elected to Fellowship of the Academy. Twenty new Fellows may be elected every year.

Originally Published on UOW Newsroom. Words by Ben Long.