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Society for Epidemiologic Research (SER) Presidential Addresses

SER President Urges Greater Unity to Meet the Challenges Facing Epidemiology in the 90’s

“To lump or to split?”  that is a question facing epidemiology today, according to outgoing SER president Jonathan Samet. He posed the question in his presidential address at the recent SER meeting in Snowbird after noting the growing number of new subspecialty associations in epidemiology. Is greater fragmentation into separate groups or greater unity in the best interest of epidemiology, asked Dr. Samet.

Yes/Yes Answer

Samet answered both questions with a yes. He seemed to accept the need for the creation of new groups when these subspecialists do not have adequate opportunities to make presentations or have other interactions with colleagues at SER. On the other hand, Dr. Samet expressed the view that without greater efforts at unity, epidemiologists would not be optimally organized to meet the challenges facing them in the 1990’s.

He listed some of the challenges he sees today and expressed confidence that the number of challenges would increase over the next decade. Some of the challenges facing the whole of epidemiology today, according to Dr. Samet, are 1) the issues around providing greater data access; 2) around guidelines for the conduct of research; and 3) the perennial need to advocate for more resources for training and research, which is not being addressed by any group at present. SER has begun to take a more activist orientation to these issues, he said, at least judging by the number and mandate of the various committees that have been created over the recent past.

Encouraging Signs

Dr. Samet pointed to some encouraging signs that efforts at greater unity are being made in the epidemiology community today. He noted specifically the proposal to create a liaison committee with representatives from each of the major epidemiology associations. He urged SER to “aggressively move forward” to take a “broader role” in representing the interest of epidemiology today. This is especially important because of the “increasingly difficult world for epidemiologists in the 1990’s.”

Published July 1990   

Postscript  2000

            Did I offer these comments in 1990 or 2000? My listing of challenges foretold included data access, guidelines for the conduct of research, and “the perennial need” for more resources for training and research. While little skill in prophecy was needed for the last, data access became a critical issue with the 1998 Shelby Amendment and the resulting Circular A-110 of the Office of Management and Budget, and the conduct of research remains a matter of discussion.  Several studies figuring prominently in policy decisions have now had independent replication or validation of analyses.

            When I made these remarks as President of SER, I was concerned about the taciturn response of our profession to external pressures and our failure to proactively act through professional organizations. I had the vision that SER would join with other organizations in taking on these and other challenges to epidemiology. That vision has not yet been met, although the American College of Epidemiology has stepped forward to take on some key issues for epidemiology.

            Since 1990, epidemiologic research and training have flourished and epidemiologic evidence has figured centrally in major policy decisions, giving further prominence to the field and leading to questions as to the limitations of epidemiologic evidence. We can only expect mounting interest and scrutiny of epidemiologic data, as researchers continue to address critical societal questions.  My remarks remain as cogent today as in 1990, but the fractious nature of the discipline and the policy wariness of many epidemiologists has hindered my proposed solutions to still persistent problems.

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