5 February, 2024
We find ourselves at “a critical point in the development and use of data science,” remarked SEIO President Begoña Vitoriano in her opening address. One at which “even the authors of programs like ChatGPT and similar, which are everywhere nowadays, admit that it is not possible to affirm the truth of the results they come up with – hallucinations, as they are known when a response is false or misleading – and even confess to bypassing copyright law when training their models.” It is therefore vital, she concluded, to develop “reliable systems that set rules for fair access to data, shield the privacy of individuals and protect citizens from the misuse and abuse of data.”
“The researchers we are recognizing today are bywords for talent, creativity and hard work,” said Silvia Churruca, Director of Communications and Institutional Relations at the BBVA Foundation. “Men and women who are making a significant contribution to converting data into socially useful information.”
At the same time, “the exponential growth of data storage and processing capacity, propelled by the advance of such a powerful, disruptive technology as artificial intelligence, inevitably brings risks,” she continued. “The potential threats of these tools for the privacy of individuals and the quality of our democratic systems call for close collaboration between the sciences and the humanities, in which ethical concerns must invariably be paramount.”
The SEIO-Fundación BBVA Awards, funded with 6,000 euros in each of their five categories, have been granted annually since 2020 for pioneering contributions made at a university or scientific center in Spain. Their aim is to support the efforts of the best researchers in Statistics and Operations Research, and inform society of the importance of their work.
Professors Eustasio del Barrio (Professor of Statistics and Operations Research at the University of Valladolid), Marc Hallin (Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium), Juan Cuesta-Albertos (Professor of Statistics and Operations Research at the University of Cantabria) and Carlos Matrán (Professor of Statistics and Operations Research at the University of Valladolid) received the award for the Best Methodological Contribution in Statistics for “Distribution and Quantile Functions, Ranks, and Signs in Dimension d: A Measure Transportation Approach,” published in Annals of Statistics. This paper puts forward a new technique to compare data obtained under different experimental conditions, a core aspect of the scientific method of cross-cutting utility in all areas of research.
The awardees in the Best Methodological Contribution in Operations Research category were Roi Naveiro (Professor of Quantitative Methods at CUNEF University), Tahir Ekin (Steven R. Gregg Associate Professor of Quantitative Methods at Texas State University, United States), David Ríos Insua (Research Professor in the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, ICMAT, of the Spanish National Research Council) and Alberto Torres Barrán (Chief Technology Officer at Komorebi AI S.L.) for the paper “Augmented Probability Simulation Methods for Sequential Games,” published in the European Journal of Operational Research. The study it describes marked a breakthrough in developing an algorithm that will help firms decide which cyber security tools are right for them, setting their cost against the client’s vulnerability to attacks.
Pablo Morales-Álvarez (Assistant Professor of Statistics and Operations Research at the University of Granada), Pablo Ruiz (data scientist at Chartboost), Scott Coughlin (computational specialist with Northwestern IT Research Computing Services at Northwestern University, United States), Rafael Molina (Professor of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence at the University of Granada) and Aggelos K. Katsaggelos (Joseph Cummings Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Northwestern University, United States) picked up the award for Best Applied Contribution in Statistics for their paper “Scalable Variational Gaussian Processes for Crowdsourcing: Glitch Detection in LIGO,” which appeared in IEEE Transactions on Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence. Their winning project applied a statistical method to the detection of gravitational waves, perturbations in the space-time fabric caused by violent events like the fusion of two black holes.
Jessica Rodríguez-Pereira (Ramón y Cajal researcher at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya), Burcu Balçık (Professor of Industrial Engineering at the University of Ozyegin, Turkey), Marie-Ève Rancourt (Professor in the Department of Logistics and Operations Management at HEC Montréal, Canada) and Gilbert Laporte (Professor Emeritus in the Department of Decision Sciences at HEC Montréal, Canada) received the award for Best Applied Contribution in Operations Research for their paper “A Cost-Sharing Mechanism for Multi-Country Partnerships in Disaster Preparedness,” published in Production and Operations Management.
Finally, the award for Best Contribution in Statistics and Operations Research applied to Data Science and Big Data was presented to the team formed by Andre Groeger (Ramón y Cajal researcher at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona), Hannes Mueller (tenured scientist in the Institute for Economic Analysis of the Spanish National Research Council), Jonathan Hersh (Associate Professor of Economics and Management Science at Chapman University, California, United States), Andrea Matranga (Associate Professor of Business at Chapman University, California, United States) and Joan Serrat (Associate Professor of Computer Science at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona), for the article “Monitoring War Destruction from Space Using Machine Learning,” published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The project in question marked a qualitative advance in the assessment of war destruction, with its authors proposing a machine learning algorithm that compares satellite images obtained over time to generate data on war destruction of unprecedented accuracy, frequency and coverage.
2023 SEIO Medallists
The ceremony was also the occasion for the SEIO to present its annual medals to two towering figures in Statistics and Operations Research in honor of their academic careers: Ramón Álvarez-Valdés Olaguíbel, Professor of Statistics and Operations Research at the University of Valencia, for his outstanding and ongoing contributions in Operations Research, his leadership in building teams and mentoring research groups, and his pioneering endeavors in results transfer to industry; and, posthumously, Francisco Javier Girón González-Torre, who died in May 2023, formerly Professor of Statistics and Operations Research at the University of Malaga. Girón González-Torre, a member of the Royal Academy of Physical, Exact and Natural Sciences, received the accolade for the excellence and rigor of his research in Statistics, as well as for his scientific leadership, creative vision, professional honesty and generosity with students and professional colleagues.
A revolution that could pose a threat to democratic systems
In their speeches, the awardees emphasized the importance of Statistics and Operations Research in the face of a disquieting trend in today’s society: the unprecedented growth in data storage and processing capacity, which has enabled the development of such powerful tools as machine learning and artificial intelligence. These techniques will revolutionize decision-making but also have the power to erode the quality of our democracies.
“A clear example of this impact is the growing personalization of the adverts that reach us,” said Roi Naveiro on behalf of the team recognized in the category of Best Methodological Contribution in Operations Research. “The capacity to generate data has expanded to such an extent that it allows messages to be targeted with ever greater precision, and this makes people more manipulable. It is important, therefore, to invest in training so we have properly informed citizens. And a key part of such training has to be a knowledge of statistics, empowering us to make better decisions based on evidence and data.”
Andre Groeger, speaking on behalf of the winning team in the Best Contribution in Statistics and Operations Research Applied to Data Science and Big Data category, urged the whole scientific community to “make use of our collective knowledge to confront the most pressing challenges of our time.” He too devoted time to the societal risks associated with statistics: “Statistical analysis can be misused and misinterpreted and that creates a risk of fake news. And that constitutes a problem, a danger for the democracy we live in. One way round this problem, I believe, would be for the general public to have sound basic notions of statistics.”
Optimization tools to “do more with fewer resources”
The awardees’ contributions also point up the enormous potential of Statistics and Operations Research for addressing issues as complex as the response to humanitarian emergencies due to war or natural disasters. Jessica Rodríguez Pereira, who spoke for the team picking up the award for the Best Applied Contribution in Operations Research, emphasized the added value of statistical techniques for tackling today’s challenges: “In these times of climate change, scarcity of resources, and pandemics like the one we lately experienced, it is vital to have tools that help us make decisions efficiently, and Statistics and Operations Research allow us to make these decisions based on scientific evidence.”
SEIO medallist Ramón Álvarez-Valdés echoed these considerations when he summarized his research career in optimization as the quest to “do more with fewer resources,” a necessary axiom in the midst of a global climate and biodiversity crisis if the goal is to “obtain not just economic but also environmental benefits.” In his speech, he stressed his belief that optimization should guide our decisions in every context: “There should be a wider dissemination of the use and advantages of using optimization-based solution strategies to solve everyday problems, whether in business, the family or any other area.”
A key instrument to advance knowledge in every domain
Eustasio del Barrio, spokesman for the team recognized for the Best Methodological Contribution in Statistics, was no less adamant about the usefulness of statistics as an input to decisions: “It is worth remembering here a principle that should guide us always: understand better in order to act better.”
Statistics, he pointed out, has become a key support for science itself: “Research, scientific and technological development rely a great deal on being able to correctly analyze experimental data. And statistics has a very, very important role in that respect.”
Pablo Morales Álvarez and his co-winners in the Best Applied Contribution in Statistics category perfectly exemplify the discipline’s usefulness for research, in astrophysics in this case. Their award-winning paper proposed an artificial intelligence system for distinguishing between gravitational waves and other noise patterns among the signals captured by the LIGO project. In his speech on behalf of his team, Morales Álvarez argued that their research revealed the potential for close collaboration between statistics and computer science: “It is important to build bridges between the more classical view of statistics as a branch of mathematics and a view that puts it closer to computer science, data science or artificial intelligence. I think that a lot of interesting work can be done at the intersection of those two visions.”
Finally, the contributions of Javier Girón, posthumously awarded the SEIO Medal, testify to the vast scope of statistics for adding value in every field, including the realm of culture. Professor Girón expressed precisely this sentiment five years before his death in a lecture on the links between mathematics and music at the Instituto Cervantes, an excerpt of which was shown during the ceremony: “Remember that Leibniz referred succinctly to music as the ‘arithmetic of the soul’. This is a philosophical statement of great depth, but hard to formulate with precision. The difference between music and noise lies in the internal organization and structure of the sounds we hear. And it could be that the data provided by music can help us unravel some of that underlying structure.”
The international committee had a membership proposed by SEIO and the BBVA Foundation. Chairing the committee on this occasion was Ana Paula Barbosa Póvoa, Professor of Operations and Logistics and Head of the Engineering and Management Department in the Instituto Superior Técnico at the University of Lisbon (Portugal). Its members were: Claudia Archetti, Professor of Operations Research at ESSEC Business School (France); Araceli Garín, Professor in Quantitative Methods for Economics and Business at the University of the Basque Country (Spain); Xuming He, H. C. Carver Professor of Statistics at the University of Michigan (United States); Martine Labbé, Professor in the Graphs and Mathematical Optimization Unit at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (Belgium); and Daniel Peña, Emeritus Professor of Statistics at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) (Spain).
SEIO is a non-profit organization whose purposes include the advancement of Statistics and Operations Research in Spain through the promotion of research, its dissemination to society, and the improvement of education at all levels. Its main goals are to communicate the quality and achievements of Statistics and Operations Research, to promote their teaching and learning, to apprise the public of the importance of both disciplines for technological, economic and social development, and to serve as a reference point in all matters relating to science and technology.
About the BBVA Foundation
The BBVA Foundation is an expression of the BBVA Group’s engagement with the promotion of knowledge and innovation as the most effective means to expand our individual and collective choices. Its activity centers on support for scientific research (through research projects, grants and collaboration with scientific institutions), the recognition of talent through families of awards organized alone or in conjunction with scientific societies, and the wider dissemination of knowledge and culture. Its diverse programs, run directly or in partnership with leading institutions and organizations, are focused primarily on the areas of Basic Sciences, Biology and Biomedicine, Ecology and Environmental Sciences, Economics and Social Sciences, Statistics, Big Data and AI, Information and Communication Technologies, Humanities, Music and the Arts.