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Statistics team helping to make gains in solving big grains research questions

Dr Katia Stefanova, centre, and some of her team members at SAGI-West are continually crunching numbers to help grains researchers validate their findings and develop trial methods that stack up to scientific rigour.
Photo: Evan Collis

Complex data sets may not be everyone's cup of tea, but the role of statistics in Australia's grains industry is perhaps more critical than many of us realise.

One example where this is particularly evident is a paddock survey project being conducted by the Australian Herbicide Resistance Initiative (AHRI).

Its researchers have relied upon the advice of statisticians to not only analyse their research findings, but to also help them develop experimental methodologies which ensure the research outcomes are scientifically rigorous.

These statisticians are from SAGI-West (Statistics for the Australian Grains Industry), a project team working behind the scenes on more than 50 GRDC research projects across the western region.

They are ensuring outcomes are accurate and, more importantly for growers, able to be translated into on-farm practices.

Expertise available

The SAGI-West group is a GRDC co-investment with Curtin University, employing the expertise of 10 qualified biometricians.

Six of these biometricians have completed PhD degrees - five in the area of theoretical and applied statistics, and one in the area of population genetics.

SAGI-West is co-managed by Professor Mark Gibberd, the director of the Centre for Crop and Disease Management (CCDM), and Dr Katia Stefanova.

They believe that the real value of the role of statistics in any research project is the confidence they can provide to growers through ensuring the scientific validity of research findings.

Role of data

Dr Stefanova says SAGI-West usually starts the collaboration at the planning stage of a research project -before any work is done in the paddock.

She says this helps researchers create robust experimental procedures and provides optimal designs using the most cutting-edge statistical models.

The statisticians will then work closely with the researchers using advanced statistical techniques to analyse field, glasshouse and genomic data - and by publishing quality research.

"Statistics is the science of dealing with uncertainty, and our goal is to find patterns within data, relevant to the farmers, which are very unlikely to have come from random chance," Dr Stefanova says.

"These patterns, or the lack thereof, then allow us to indicate to growers how the treatments have affected the desired response, and whether it was a positive, negative or negligible outcome."

Dr Stefanova says this ensures the findings that are reported are reliable and have a high chance of being reproducible in the future under similar conditions.

With an $18 million investment over five years from GRDC, SAGI also has other nodes across the country.

SAGI-South is based at the University of Adelaide, SAGI-North is based at the Queensland Department of Agriculture and SAGI-National is based at the University of Wollongong.

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