Biostatistics in Finland

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Biostatisticians have contributed for a long time to the conceptualization, development, and successful use of epidemiological methods for the study of disease causation and prevention. The International Biometric Society was established already in 1947. The Finnish Society of Biostatistics was founded 40 years later in 1987, with Professors Seppo Sarna (University of Helsinki), Juha Alho (University of Joensuu), and Adjunct Professor Markku Nurminen (University of Helsinki) as the founding members. For over 20 years, the activity of the Society has fostered the application of statistical and mathematical methods in epidemiology, medicine, and biology in Finland. Especially the work carried out at the Research Division of Biometry at the Rolf Nevanlinna Institute under the the leadership of Professor Elja Arjas in the application of Bayesian statistical inference and Markov chain Monte Carlo methods deserves mentioning. The above-mentioned Finnish biostatisticians are shown in the picture; left: EA, MN, SS, JA.

biostatisticiansThere are, nevertheless, two prevailing sources of concern. The first is the apparently over-mathematization of biostatistics. This trend is reflected in journals such as Biometrika and Biometrics that initially set out to be comprehensible to the less academic practitioners. Newer journals such as Statistics in Medicine and Biostatistics are more application-oriented. The second concern is that the evolution of biostatistics - which relies increasingly on important contributions from computing - can lead to the over-emphasis of the role of theory at the expense of practice in the teaching and consulting of epidemiologic methods for researchers. Although theory may be the best guide in practice, the stress in the application of biostatistics should be on the prefix bio.

Olli S. Miettinen, Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, McGill University, Monteral, Canada, and lecturer in the courses on the principles and methods of epidemiologic research hosted by the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics for a quarter-century, has described the role of biostatistics in the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health as follows:

Both practice and research in occupational health are strongly dependent on proficiency in biostatistics. So essential is the latter, that biostatistics, as it pertains to epidemiology, is indeed inherent in the concept of epidemiology -- in contrast to, say toxicology. In other words, epidemiology is, at once, both a substantive and a statistical discipline. Two considerations do, however, justify explicit and separate eminence to biostatistics in the context of epidemiology. For one, those who are proficient in the substantive (biomedical) aspects of epidemiology generally have only a limited mastery of biostatistics; they therefore need expert biostatistical collaboration on a near-continual basis. For another, this in-house statistical resource in an epidemiology unit has also a larger, institution-wide role, as other disciplines (e.g. toxicology) in the Institute generally do not have any built-in expertise in the biostatistical aspects of their research.

A review: Nurminen M. Evolution of epidemiologic methodology from the statistical perspective. The Internet Jourmal of Epidemiology 2003; Volume 1, Number 1.

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