UW Today

March 15, 2017

Adrian Raftery receives Ireland’s St. Patrick’s Day Medal for contributions to statistics

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UW professor Adrian Raftery (left) with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.

UW professor Adrian Raftery (left) with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.Nick Crettier

On March 15 at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., Prime Minister Enda Kenny of Ireland honored Adrian Raftery, a professor of statistics and sociology at the University of Washington, for his diverse contributions to the field of statistics. Kenny presented Raftery with the St. Patrick’s Day Medal, which is awarded each year by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).

Raftery, who has worked at the UW since 1986, develops new statistical methodology, with a focus on the social, environmental and health sciences. His methods have been applied to problems ranging from weather forecasting to population growth projections.

“I am very happy to be recognized by Science Foundation Ireland,” said Raftery. “It means a lot to me to be honored by my own country.”

SFI, the Irish government’s primary agency for funding and promoting STEM research, engagement and education, established the St. Patrick’s Day Medal in 2014 to honor Irish-born scientists who live and work in the United States. SFI initially awarded the medal to just one scientist per year, but last year SFI started to honor two scientists each year, one from academia and one from industry.

UW professor Adrian Raftery (right), with fellow medal recipient T. Pearse Lyons (center) and SFI Director General Mark Ferguson (left).

UW professor Adrian Raftery (right), with fellow medal recipient T. Pearse Lyons (center) and SFI Director General Mark Ferguson (left).Nick Crettier

Raftery was SFI’s 2017 medal recipient for academic research, while T. Pearse Lyons received the medal this year from industry. Lyons is founder and president of Alltech, Inc., a Kentucky-based agricultural products and food science company.

In a statement released by the foundation for the ceremony at the United States Institute of Peace, Kenny, who also uses the Irish title of his office, “An Taoiseach,” praised the impact that Raftery and Lyons have had on their fields.

“They have demonstrated how academic and industry based scientific research can create jobs, tackle global problems and impact positively on people and society,” said Kenny. “These distinguished medal recipients are driving globally significant innovation in the areas of agriculture, food production, health, and population and weather forecasting, to name just a few.”

Raftery was born in Dublin and became interested in statistics as a secondary student at Dublin’s St. Conleth’s College. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1976 and a master’s degree in statistics and operations research in 1977, both from Trinity College Dublin. After obtaining his doctoral degree in mathematical statistics from the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris in 1980, Raftery served as a lecturer at Trinity College Dublin before joining the University of Washington in 1986.

At the UW, Raftery has worked to develop new statistical methods for scientific problems. A wide range of scientific fields, particularly in the “big data” era, rely on statistical tools to draw conclusions about the world at large from the results of specific experiments or series of observations. Raftery has developed, tested and applied statistical models and methods to improve and sharpen these tools for better forecasting and estimates of probability.

Adrian Raftery with his spouse, UW researcher Hana Sevcikova.

Adrian Raftery with his spouse, UW researcher Hana Sevcikova.Nick Crettier

“To a large extent, this award is for the work of my amazing Ph.D. students and collaborators at UW, in Ireland and elsewhere over the years,” said Raftery. “It reflects the strategic impact of statistical thinking on science and policy. I am happy to have been able to help colleagues in a variety of scientific fields with new statistical methods to interpret their data.”

Raftery served as founding director of the UW Center for Statistics and the Social Sciences from 1999 to 2009. He became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003 and a member of the National Academy of Science in 2009. Over the course of his career, Raftery has authored over 200 articles in scientific journals, and Thomson Reuters named him the most-cited researcher in mathematics in the world from 1995 to 2005.

The wide reach of Raftery’s work is also evident in his long list of collaborators across scientific fields. For example, he has worked with marine biologists to estimate the population of bowhead whales in the northern Pacific and Arctic oceans, and with U.N. scientists to model how HIV infections spread among vulnerable, hard-to-reach populations in parts of Europe and Africa. He has also applied his models to studies of air quality, world population, social mobility, gene expression in cells, fertility, migration and family structure, among other topics. He also found time to help the Irish government estimate the Emerald Isle’s production capacity for wind power.

That is the type of global impact that SFI seeks to honor with the St. Patrick’s Day Medal, according to SFI Director General Mark Ferguson.

“The research undertaken by these two Irish leaders has had a profound and diverse impact across the globe,” said Ferguson in a statement.

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For more information, contact Raftery at 206-543-4505 or raftery@uw.edu.

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