Professor Sir Ian Diamond
Professor Sir Ian Diamond first encountered a computer as a student at the London School of Economics the mid-1970s. He learnt Fortran and submitted programs on punched cards. “But we never actually used computers to analyse data,” he says.
Computers are now crucial to Sir Ian’s role as the UK’s national statistician, and principal adviser to the UK Statistics Authority and the Government. The task involves using the latest AI, machine learning and textual analysis to tackle some of the thorniest current social and economic challenges.
From the beginning, Sir Ian was interested in the application of statistics to social science, demographics and survey data. Statistics have had a bad press, he says, but when they are rigorous and well put together they are increasingly reliable and powerful. For example, they have recently helped discover how the coronavirus is impacting people disproportionately in different ethnic groups.
After an MSc at the LSE, Sir Ian took a PhD at St Andrews, where he received “outstanding supervision” looking at the problem of relatively high drop-out rates among Scottish students compared with their English counterparts.
His career has included being chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council and vice chancellor of the University of Aberdeen. In 2019, he did not take much persuasion to apply for the post of national statistician.
“It has been a total thrill every day since,” he says. “We need to produce data that the public can trust, and to reflect the economy and society at a time when it is changing very quickly.”
Massive technology change has made it possible to think increasingly radically about all kinds of data, and to produce ever more timely and accurate statistics. But it is really important to have a social theory about what you are doing, says Sir Ian. And to communicate properly, explaining assumptions and ensuring that people can understand the level of uncertainty and margin for error.
For those interested in studying statistics, there can be no better career, he says, and the UK has some of the world’s strongest institutions.