Sir David Cox and Bradley Efron have been awarded the prestigious BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Basic Sciences category. The €400,000 award is shared for their development of “pioneering and hugely influential” statistical methods that have proved indispensable for obtaining reliable results in a vast spectrum of disciplines from medicine to astrophysics, genomics or particle physics.

“Cox and Efron’s techniques are used on a daily basis in the practice of statistical science, and have made an enormous impact in all the sciences which rely on the analysis of data,” the jury’s citation said.

Cox’s contribution, “the Cox regression,” is a powerful tool to explain the duration of a time interval between two events of interest, which depends on identifiable factors rather than mere chance (for instance, the mortality of a group of individuals due to a particular disease or a risk factor like environmental pollution). It finds use in such varied fields as cancer research, epidemiology, economics, psychology or sociology, and even in the testing of the resistance and durability of industrial products. The jury illustrates the technique’s application in the medical field by citing the conclusion that even a year of smoking cessation contributes to reduce mortality.

Bradley Efron, Stanford University, meantime, is the inventor of the bootstrap, a “deceptively simple” technique, as the jury terms it, to estimate the margin of error of a given outcome; a must-know in science, without which results are worthless.

Both contributions date from decades ago and both laureates found it hard to pick just one out of the multiple applications found since then. David Cox, University of Oxford, declared himself “enormously surprised and gratified” by the sheer range of scientific problems his method has helped address. Cox’s technique, published in 1972, is now the second most cited statistics paper in modern scientific literature.

Cox’s move into statistics was motivated by the military imperatives of the aeronautics industry in the Second World War. Efron, who met Cox in London in 1972, had been nudged towards statistics by his father’s love of mathematics and sport. He says part of what led him to the bootstrap technique, published in 1979, was a conversation he had with Cox then about another statistical analysis method.

The two laureates concur that their own methods, and statistical tools in general, will become increasingly necessary in the practice of science, more reliant by day on the analysis of massive data sets.

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