Brad Efron wins BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award

Brad Efron
Brad Efron

BRAD EFRON, professor of statistics and of biomedical data science, has been awarded the 2016 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Basic Sciences category for his invention of the bootstrap method. This statistical technique is used widely by people who are working with data and need to estimate the accuracy of a given result.

TREVOR HASTIE, professor of statistics and of biomedical data science, was a member of the jury that decided the winners of this award. He called Efron and his fellow awardee, DAVID COX of the University of Oxford, “the two most influential statisticians alive today, and true revolutionaries in their field.”

The bootstrap method was introduced in Efron’s 1979 paper, “Bootstrap Methods: Another Look at the Jackknife,” published in The Annals of Statistics. It’s a deceptively simple technique where the uncertainty surrounding a sample statistic is determined by a computer algorithm that takes the original data sample and randomly re-samples from it many times. Efron named the method after an 18th-century tall tale featuring Baron Münchhausen, where the Baron saves himself from drowning by pulling himself up by his bootstraps. Like this feat, being able to learn more about data without any additional data seems impossible.

Computers are crucial to the bootstrap method because it requires a substantial amount of processing power. In its infancy, this was considered another reason to be skeptical of the bootstrap as Efron was an early adopter of computer-based analysis, which many of his colleagues had yet to embrace.

“It seemed like cheating to leave the hard work to an algorithm, and it wasn’t obvious that it would work,” said Efron in the BBVA Foundation press release announcing the award.

Now, the bootstrap is a standard technique valued for its ability to supply inexpensive, high-quality statistical analysis. It is used by researchers in many fields, including physics, economics and medicine.

Efron first came to Stanford as a master’s student in statistics. After earning his PhD in 1964, he joined the statistics faculty. He is a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, American Statistical Association, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Institute of Mathematical Statistics and International Statistical Institute. He is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Among numerous other awards, he was a MacArthur Prize Fellow and was awarded the 2005 National Medal of Science.

Efron is also a member of the Stanford Cancer Institute and co-director of the Mathematical and Computational Sciences Program. Hastie is also a member of Stanford Bio-X, the Child Health Research Institute, the Stanford Cancer Institute and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute.