James Robins, whose work at the intersection of statistical science and epidemiology aims to estimate causal effects of exposures or drug treatments—as opposed to just associations—has received the 2013 Nathan Mantel Lifetime Achievement Award in Statistics and Epidemiology.
Robins, Mitchell L. and Robin LaFoley Dong Professor of Epidemiology, who has worked at Harvard School of Public Health since 1982, has developed analytical methods and estimation models to quantify causality, margin of error, and missing data from complex observational and randomized studies, particularly in cases where exposure or treatment varies over time.
In the past five years, for instance, he has used his methods to analyze the effects of particulate air pollution on mortality, and to explain and reconcile the discrepancy in the estimated benefits of postmenopausal hormone therapy on heart disease. Also, in examining the effect of obesity on mortality, he has used his methods to eliminate bias due to “reverse causation”—which in this case refers to the fact that individuals with undiagnosed cancer lose weight but soon die, thereby making weight loss falsely appear harmful.
The Nathan Mantel Award is named for a longtime National Cancer Institute biostatistician, who died in 2002, whose methods allowed data from several sources or groups to be combined while avoiding confounding—when an association between an exposure and a disease doesn’t take into account other possible risk factors.