Department of Statistics and Data Science name change reflects shift in the field

Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Paola Mathus/

The name change from the Department of Statistics to the Department of Statistics and Data Science was marked by some interesting statistics of its own. Applicants to Dietrich thinking about studying statistics have doubled since 2013, and the number of undergraduate statistics majors is four times the size of what it was in 2010, and twenty times the size of what it was in 2003.

This change was prompted not by an abrupt shift in what the Statistics Department does, but rather was meant to reflect the shifting state of the field. “Because our approach to statistics encompasses the essence of what data science is and can be, we have decided to change the name of the department to the Department of Statistics and Data Science. We feel this name more accurately reflects the department’s position on the leading edge of research and education in a data-rich world,” stated Richard Scheines, the Dean of Dietrich, and Christopher Genovese, head of the Department of Statistics and Data Science in a Dietrich-wide email.

As “big data” becomes more and more central to the work of the Statistics Department, the work done by the department is also on the cutting edge of the technological atmosphere prevalent at Carnegie Mellon, as evidenced by the degree in Statistics and Machine Learning offered jointly by the Department of Statistics and the Department of Machine Learning in the School of Computer Science.

The Statistics Department at Carnegie Mellon has always somewhat defied classification. It is housed within Dietrich, and as such, takes a uniquely social-science-geared approach to statistics. “Our statisticians and data scientists exemplify the Carnegie Mellon approach to the humanities and social sciences, which infuses foundational and deep research across disciplines to take on and offer solutions for issues that are important to the world today,” stated Richard Scheines in a university press release. Some knowledge of statistics is required for all Dietrich students, so a change in the mission of this department touches dozens of majors in this university.

The distinction between data science and statistics is sometimes blurred, but often statistics tends to veer more into the realm of the theoretical, while data science tackles the interpretation of large data sets. The Department of Statistics and Data Science has long pursued both, even before the re-brand. “For the past 50 years, we have made a big impact in both statistical theory and applying those theories to real problems and real data in fields from genetics and astronomy to sports and finance,” stated Christopher Genovese.

The real world application of theoretical and technical concepts is a cornerstone of both the philosophy of our university and the practice of data science, so this approach fits easily into the larger mission of the department. “Our curriculum is designed to give students a taste and a wide variety of experiences of what it is like to do statistics and data science in the real world. We take problems that are real — from research, industry and government — and put them straight into the classroom,” said Rebecca Nugent, director of undergraduate studies.