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50 years of Data Science by Dave Donoho

More than 50 years ago, John Tukey called for a reformation of academic statistics. In ‘The Future of Data Analysis’, he pointed to the existence of an as-yet unrecognized science, whose subject of interest was learning from data, or ‘data analysis’. Ten to twenty years ago, John Chambers, Bill Cleveland and Leo Breiman independently once again urged academic statistics to expand its boundaries beyond the classical domain of theoretical statistics; Chambers called for more emphasis on data preparation and presentation rather than statistical modeling; and Breiman called for emphasis on prediction rather than inference. Cleveland even suggested the catchy name “Data Science” for his envisioned field.

A recent and growing phenomenon is the emergence of “Data Science” programs at major universities, including UC Berkeley, NYU, MIT, and most recently the Univ. of Michigan, which on September 8, 2015 announced a $100M “Data Science Initiative” that will hire 35 new faculty. Teaching in these new programs has significant overlap in curricular subject matter with traditional statistics courses; in general, though, the new initiatives steer away from close involvement with academic statistics departments.

This paper reviews some ingredients of the current “Data Science moment”, including recent commentary about data science in the popular media, and about how/whether Data Science is really different from Statistics.

The now-contemplated field of Data Science amounts to a superset of the fields of statistics and machine learning which adds some technology for ‘scaling up’ to ‘big data’. This chosen superset is motivated by commercial rather than intellectual developments. Choosing in this way is likely to miss out on the really important intellectual event of the next fifty years.

Because all of science itself will soon become data that can be mined, the imminent revolution in Data Science is not about mere ‘scaling up’, but instead the emergence of scientific studies of data analysis science-wide. In the future, we will be able to predict how a proposal to change data analysis workflows would impact the validity of data analysis across all of science, even predicting the impacts field-by-field. Drawing on work by Tukey, Cleveland, Chambers and Breiman, I present a vision of data science based on the activities of people who are ‘learning from data’, and I describe an academic field dedicated to improving that activity in an evidence-based manner. This new field is a better academic enlargement of statistics and machine learning than today’s Data Science Initiatives, while being able to accommodate the same short-term goals.

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