Data science as ‘a rainbow’, and other definitions

Data science means different things to different people. Former RSS president Sylvia Richardson has described it as ‘a rainbow of interconnected disciplines’. What’s your personal definition?


Brian Tarran


March 29, 2023

What does “data science” mean to you? That’s a question we’ve been asking a lot in recent weeks as part of our career profiles series of interviews – the first of which, featuring Jaguar Land Rover’s Tamanna Haque, was published yesterday.

It’s also a question that was asked recently of Sylvia Richardson, emeritus director of the Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit at the University of Cambridge and immediate past president of the Royal Statistical Society (RSS).

Richardson was interviewed by Francesca Dominici, interim co-editor-in-chief of the Harvard Data Science Review. In response to the question “What’s data science for you?”, Richardson said:

It’s hard to be original, but I was racking my brain for a good metaphor, and came up with the metaphor of a rainbow of interconnected disciplines, sharing the common aim of making the best use of data-rich environments we live in to solve problems in society. So, like in a rainbow, data scientists have to work together to draw out information from data. And the colors must match, [though] they are different. Similarly, there are different but intersecting data science tasks, taking different shapes and forms. As data scientists, we recognize and enjoy diversity, we’re not doing all the same tasks. Nevertheless, there is a backbone, a shape to the rainbow. And for us, this backbone is probability theory, study design, and quantifying uncertainty using statistical thinking. We also know that rainbows change all the time. They don’t last, but they keep reappearing. Data science is also evolving constantly because new questions and new types of data keep arising. In a similar way to the rainbow which is strongly influenced by the atmosphere, one key aspect of data science is that we have a strong link to practice. So, we work together to solve problems from different perspectives, we evolve, we try to be relevant to science and society, and make the best use of the data. [Source]

Richardson’s view on the meaning and importance of data science has special resonance to me, as editor of Real World Data Science. While president of RSS, Richardson set up the Data Science Task Force out of which this website emerged. As she explains to Dominici:

… while I was president, I felt a sense of urgency to encourage the RSS to revisit its engagement with data science, and I created a data science task force right at the beginning of my presidency. It didn’t get going earlier because there was COVID to keep us busy! Nevertheless, the Data Science Task Force got underway in 2021 and came up with two major recommendations. One was to give more resources to the practitioners’ community, which led the RSS to create a Real World Data Science online platform. A second direction was to brainstorm on what is still needed for the discipline to thrive. [Source]

You can read (or listen) to Richardson and Dominici’s conversation in full on the Harvard Data Science Review website.

And we’ll have more career profiles – and more personal definitions of data science – to share soon. In the meantime, why not tell us what “data science” means to you?

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Copyright and licence
© 2023 Royal Statistical Society

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) International licence, except where otherwise noted.

How to cite
Tarran, Brian. 2023. “Data science as ‘a rainbow’, and other definitions.” Real World Data Science, March 29, 2023. URL