Someone to count on: Statistician Wilf Falk’s role as defender
“Knowing the world without statistics would be impossible.” – Ola Rosling, CEO, Gapminder Foundation/data visualization expert
Wilf Falk [MSc/72] knows the power of numbers. First as a student at the UofM and then as a professional statistician for the Manitoba government, he has seen what numbers can do, and how they can be interpreted for the betterment of society. After a long and satisfying career as CEO of the Manitoba Bureau of Statistics, Falk is now retired, but no less enthusiastic about his chosen field.
“As a statistician, I strongly view the world better off with statistics than without. The statistical methods and thinking have enhanced our societies.With the advent of large-scale computing, statistics is an essential component of social, natural, medical and physical sciences, along with business analytics and other fields. Dr. Andrew Gelman of Columbia University wrote: ‘Perhaps the most important contribution of statistics comes not from the direct use of statistical methods in science and technology, but rather in helping us learn about the world.’ So, without statistics, we would not understand the world around us so well. Overall, our quality of life would not be [as] good.”
It was in an effort to improve their own quality of life that Falk’s parents emigrated to Canada in the early 1950’s, when Falk was not yet four years old. After graduating from Gordon Bell High School, his goal was a university education. Falk had originally thought of entering what was then the Faculty of Pharmacy in order to become a researcher. Sadly, his marks weren’t strong enough to gain entrance. Falk enrolled in Honours Statistics in his second year, graduating four years later in 1971 with his Bachelor’s degree.
The summer of ’71 was spent working for Environment Canada in Ottawa. It marked the only period that Falk lived away from his adopted home town of Winnipeg. He considered attending university in the U.S. for his post-graduate studies, either in North Carolina or Iowa. Ultimately, Falk decided to continue at the UofM, due to the high quality of the program and his familiarity with and respect for the professors in the Department of Statistics.
“An additional factor was that I was not continuing to the PhD level and a likely academic career. My interests were more on the applied as opposed to the theoretical. My top interest was applied Sampling Theory.
“Dr. J.N.K. Rao taught the two four-year Sampling courses and next year the graduate level course. Dr. Rao was one of the leading Sampling academics in the world. I recall his teaching of Double Sampling theory to our class. During the class, he had a eureka moment on what he was presenting. From this moment, Dr. Rao developed a paper on Double Sampling that was published in the scientific journal Biometrica.”
Falk’s first job after gaining his Master’s was at Canada Manpower and Immigration in January 1973. His responsibilities included the development of a linear programming model to determine the optimized allocation of individual training courses the federal department should purchase at Manitoba educational institutions such as Red River Community College.
Five months later, Falk joined the Statistics Unit of the Manitoba Department of Health and Social Development. As a Statistical Analyst, he was responsible for interpreting data regarding Vital Statistics, Corrections and Mental Health administrative statistics (which included visits to various correctional and mental health facilities across the province). During this time, Falk also worked on the development of the Manitoba Supplement for the Elderly financial support program, as well as design aspects of Manitoba Daycare. It was his work on these and other projects that garnered Falk a promotion to the level of Statistician.
Continuing his meteoric rise, Falk then joined the Manitoba Bureau of Statistics (MBS) in May 1976 as the Head of the Surveys and Data Acquisition unit, reporting to the Director of MBS. When the director eventually retired in 1979, Falk was primed to apply for the position, which he did. So it was that Falk, at the tender age of 31 became the Director of Statistics for the Manitoba Statistics Act and Chief Statistician of Manitoba, a position he held until his retirement in November 2016.
Falk admits to feeling a great responsibility to the citizens of Manitoba in his role as the province’s Focal Point on statistical matters:
“Under the authority of the Manitoba Statistics Act [which is] the legislative authority for the Bureau of Statistics, it is the responsibility of the Chief Statistician to represent the interests of the province. While it is not a significant amount of the overall resources of the organization, it is a critical function.
“Statistics Canada is, by far, the major provider of information on the province Manitoba. In addition to the volume of information, the statistical quality of these estimates is of critical importance (e.g. monthly Labour Force Survey measuring employment and unemployment in the province, the Census of Population, quarterly and annual population and demographic estimates).
“Manitoba is a relatively small province in Canada representing less than 4% of the overall population. To be more influential than our small size, we need to “fight above our weight class”. Statistics Canada needs to take Manitoba’s requests/comments seriously. One strategy employed was to be very selective in the issues raised. If an issue is raised to the Chief Statistician of Canada and Assistant Chief Statistician level, Statistics Canada needs to realize the issue is serious to Manitoba.”
Of the issues raised with Stats Can during Falk’s time, one of the most significant was in relation to the 2011 Census of Population. During a census, it is crucial to include an accurate estimate of the number of people who were missed during the count. These estimates are included with the census numbers in order to determine how much the Federal government will transfer to the province for spending. Falk and his team challenged Statistics Canada’s undercount estimate as being too low, and for first time ever, Manitoba’s Chief Statistician challenged Canada’s Chief Statistician over Stats Can’s refusal to make any adjustments.
Falk wrote an op-ed piece for the Winnipeg Free Press, explaining Manitoba’s take on the situation. Manitoba estimated a net undercount of some 16,000 persons. Falk wanted an adjustment that would correct for some of the statistical errors in the undercount estimate. This was followed a week later by an opinion piece from the Chief Statistician of Canada. The disagreement then went viral, with ministers from both provincial and federal levels debating the issue via the news media.
Despite Statistics Canada’s admission within the federal-provincial statistical community that there were statistical issues with the Manitoba undercount estimate, the organization ultimately decided to do nothing and leave the statistical errors in the Manitoba estimate. As a result, Manitoba lost five hundred million dollars in federal government transfer payments over five years. Needless to say, Falk was more than a bit frustrated with the situation.
Nowadays, Falk is happy to reflect on his time as an undergrad. When asked what he would advise his younger self on his first day of classes, Falk is quick to stress the importance of time management and focusing on ones’ studies, skills he eventually mastered towards the end of his undergraduate career. Falk consider the years he spent at the UofM as well worth the effort.
“Given my education and experiences, I have never regretted not studying somewhere else.”
Falk is one of seven outstanding Alumni being honoured at the upcoming 2018 Faculty of Science Careers in Science – Pathways to Achievement Honoured Alumni Awards event.
What: 2018 Pathways to Achievement Honoured Alumni Awards
Topic: Careers in Science, Alumni and Student Mixer
When: Thursday, February 1, 2018, 3:00 p.m. (Doors open), 3:30 p.m. (Panel starts)
Where: Marshall McLuhan Hall, 2nd Floor, University Centre, University of Manitoba, Fort Garry campus
Reception to follow, all are welcome to attend.
Individual department events also being planned. More details to follow.