Celebrating 20 years of outstanding contributions to health research by Professor Doug Altman and the Centre for Statistics in Medicine - Event Summary


It was a day of celebrations. Professor Andy Carr (NDORMS Head of Department) opened the event with a brief but inspiring story of how CSM and NDORMS came to be together; describing the happening as one of those rare moments when planets align.
Doug's personality, humility, and leadership were highlighted by Professor Sir Muir Gray, one of the people directly responsible for making the CSM idea turn into reality. Professor Gray not only invited the audience to think, but also encouraged them to speak about how Doug has changed or influenced their lives and careers.
Professor Jon Deeks, a former member of CSM, delivered a nostalgic talk on the early days of the centre. He emphasized the contribution of CSM on meta-analyses through landmark papers, books and book chapters, software, seminal meetings on the topic and... Post-meeting drinks! But a lot of work too! Seriously, it is really hard to believe all that was achieved with the "low-tech" available at the beginning!
Professor Sir Iain Chalmers set the tone to a more serious note. His talk focused on a challenging and long lasting problem in the area of medical research: journal editors’ misconduct. Professor Chalmers reminded us of his first collaboration with Doug, but not only in the slides of his presentation: copies of a paper that followed that work were available for keen admirers to ask for Doug's autograph! By the end of his talk, Professor Chalmers described Doug as the undisputed leader of the battle against poor medical research; underpinning that it is time for the next generation to lead the way.
Doug's work on foetal biometry was presented by Professor Lyn Chitty as an example of pioneering and impacting endeavour to change clinical practice. His contribution to the BMJ (as well as to several other titles of major impact) was used as an example of what statisticians have done for medical journals by Dr Fiona Godlee. In summary, it can be said that statisticians have taught clinicians a very important lesson: the misuse of statistics is an ethical issue; one as serious as not providing care to the best of their abilities.
It was also a day of reflections. After the lunch break, Professor Sallie Lamb, the incoming director for CSM, restarted the event with a talk covering her relationship with Doug (10 years of which he didn’t know about!), the achievements together so far and the future of the centre. At this point, she made sure that the audience knew medical research has not failed, it is just more difficult than we previously thought.
Members of the senior staff then presented the work currently being done in the centre and the future challenges about to be embraced. Professor Sally Hopewell discussed the work done in OCTRU (CSM's clinical trials unit) and the effort to make researchers understand the importance of complying with the CONSORT statement. Professor Gary Collins introduced us to the future of prognosis research, the very recent (but already widespread) TRIPOD statement and the new journal focusing on predictive models. Dr Iveta Simera led the audience through the journey of the EQUATOR Network to date, its amazing work to support reproducible publications of health research and the plans for the future: getting clinicians, journal editors, universities, funders, regulation bodies, policy makers and the public more engaged with transparency in medical research. Finally, Professor Daniel Prieto Alhambra was responsible for describing the new arm of CSM: research using routinely collected clinical data for safety, equity and effectiveness.
The closure couldn’t have been better. First, Doug took the stand to share some personal reflections on his career and life. Truly entertaining and inspiring parts of Doug’s history as a person and a researcher were there: a personal note on his school report from a Statistics teacher (“should do well”); his first publication at the age of fourteen on… Arsenal’s Official Magazine (!); his first actual scientific publication (and his last in the controversial area of clinical nutrition); the journey on pursuing the excellence in the field and creating a centre that today is seen as a world reference for quality in medical statistics. If on one hand Doug insists that none of it was exhaustively and meticulously planned (he simply claims to have been led by his instincts), on the other hand one essential ingredient to the recipe of success was revealed: passion for what you do.
Following Doug, Professor Tom Walley delivered a very thought provoking and encouraging talk on the aims of the NIHR funding, underlining the important aspects that a successful application must have to get funded and how CSM has helped the NIHR to set the bar higher. At last, but definitely not least, Professor Martin Bland delighted the audience with a historical reminiscence on medical statistics and the part in it played by Doug and himself (the extended version of Professor Bland’s talk can be found here). Another set of priceless tales that shed light on the brilliant minds of two of the most important names in the world of medical statistics confirmed that, even if being highly cited doesn’t make you a good researcher (although it is very nice); even if the battle to improve medical research is far from over (although it is “proved” that their most famous paper together has improved medical research); the real important thing is to enjoy yourself and what you do. And they clearly did.
It was a day to look to the future. Quoting Professor Bland, the medical literature is still a mess and there is much still to do. The old guard will step back. Over to us. Let us make all evidence trustworthy!