New Centre to boost the health of biostatistics
Australia’s peak body for supporting health and medical research, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), is providing $2.5 million over five years for a new Centre of Research Excellence focusing on the discipline of biostatistics.
University of Melbourne Associate Professor of Biostatistics, Dr Julie Simpson, is one of the chief investigators involved in the establishment of ‘ViCBiostat – Victorian Centre for Biostatistics’.
“The discipline of biostatistics is essential to ensure high quality population health and clinical research,” says Associate Professor Simpson.
“However, in Australia there are no major centres with a sufficient critical mass of trained biostatisticians. Also, in Victoria, where the centre is based, there are few women at the leadership level even though there are many female biostatisticians in early career positions,” she explains.
“Our new centre, ViCBiostat, aims to foster the careers of a new generation of biostatistical leaders, by developing an integrated program of methodological and collaborative research that will equip them with the skills required for real-world health problems.”
Associate Professor Simpson is based at the Centre for Molecular, Environmental, Genetic and Analytic (MEGA) Epidemiology in the School of Population Health.
“The modern world is becoming saturated with quantitative data, and there is an ever-increasing gap between our capacity to accumulate digital information and our capacity to analyse and interpret it,” Associate Professor Simpson explains.
“Nowhere is this gap more apparent than in the health sciences.”
Biostatistics is the discipline that underpins the use of statistical methods in health and medical research. It encompasses the design of experiments and other quantitative research studies, and the collection, summarisation, and analysis of data from such studies, including inferences and interpretation arising from them.
“It is widely recognised that this discipline is an important part of undertaking health research,” says Associate Professor Simpson.
“However, the discipline itself struggles to remain viable in Australia because of the absence of major centres with a large number of biostatisticians.”
This ‘ViCBiostat – Victorian Centre for Biostatistics’ aims to address this structural problem in a key component of the health research workforce, by establishing a collaborative centre that brings together many of the key leaders of this field from the University of Melbourne (Associate Professor Lyle Gurrin and Associate Professor Julie Simpson), Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (Professor John Carlin and Associate Professor Michael Coory), and Monash University (Professor Andrew Forbes and Associate Professor Rory Wolfe). The newly appointed team of four postdoctoral biostatisticians includes three women: Dr Kate Lee, Dr Elizabeth Williamson and Dr Sophie Zaloumis, all of whom have graduated with degrees in mathematics and statistics. Over the next five years ViCBiostat plans to support and mentor these women scientists for leadership roles.
Although the Centre is Victorian-based, with all members employed by either the University of Melbourne, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, and Monash University, the research program includes both national and international collaborations and the Advisory Board has representatives from other states in Australia.
“Broadly speaking, the core aim of the Centre is to foster the careers of a new generation of biostatistical leaders, by providing a range of opportunities for methodological and collaborative research, and allowing the postdoctoral biostatisticians to progressively take more responsibility and leadership within the Centre,” Associate Professor Simpson says.
“In our application we highlighted that in North America and the UK there has been substantial investment in biostatistics over several decades by their national research funding agencies. This funding has led to the establishment of large academic departments, centres and national networks,” she explains.
“But until now in Australia, although many health researchers recognise the growing need for highly skilled biostatisticians, there have been no centres established to build the critical mass required.”
The existence of ViCBiostat will greatly enhance the visibility of biostatistics as an identifiable discipline, making a career path in biostatistics more appealing to a range of students, in particular undergraduates in mathematics and statistics.