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Dame Jilian Matheson

Read Professor Jane Millar's oration on Dame Jilian Matheson for the honorary degree of Doctor of Science in December 2016.


Chancellor, Dame Jilian Matheson is one of the UK’s leading statisticians, committed throughout her career to integrity and excellence in both the production of statistics and in their use in the public realm.

Jil studied sociology at the University of Sussex and started her career in government statistics in the mid-1970s. Her work over the past 40 or so years has helped to ensure not just the outstanding quality of our national statistical data but also its continuing relevance to the major economic and social issues of the day.

The Census - the count every ten years of everyone in the country - is probably the best known of the national statistics and an essential resource for understanding population trends and future planning. Jil was responsible for the design and operation of the Census - the first woman to take on that important role. More recently, she led the work to develop new measures of national wellbeing. This was quite a challenge, developing robust measures of happiness in society to put alongside our more usual measures of economic growth.

Between 2009 and her retirement in 2014, Jil was Head of the Government Statistical Service, which produces the vast majority of UK statistics. In that role, she also held the post of UK National Statistician, responsible for advising the government on all statistical matters. Additionally, as Chief Executive of the UK Statistics Authority, she had oversight in promoting and safeguarding the production of statistics to ensure that they serve the public good.

This latter role – promoting the integrity and independence of statistics in order to serve the public good – has been her abiding passion and Jil has made a significant contribution to this, nationally and internationally. She was responsible for the introduction of the National Statistics Code of Practice in 2002. She recently chaired the BBC Trust’s review of how the BBC reports statistics in its News and Current Affairs programming. In 2014, On the global stage, she was elected Chair of the UN Statistical Commission, the body representing statisticians from every UN member state, setting standards and principles of integrity for the global statistical community. There have been, and continue to be, examples of political interference in official statistics around the world. As Jil has argued, politicians and others will indeed try to create, use and spin statistics to their own ends and this makes the independence of statistics all the more important.

Jil’s contribution to maintaining that independence and the high quality of national and international statistics has been recognised in a number of ways. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society. She holds honorary degrees from the Universities of Wolverhampton and Sussex. She was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the Bath in the 2014 Birthday Honours, for services to government statistics. She has her portrait in the National Portrait Gallery.

When Jil retired in the summer of 2014, Sir Andrew Dilnot, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, paid tribute to her as (to quote) “an engaging and trusted ambassador who has unfailingly articulated the importance of high quality, trusted official statistics to countless different audiences far and wide, both at home and abroad”. He praised her “great wisdom, judgment and wise counsel.”

Trust, integrity, wisdom - these are important qualities for the world today. Jil Matheson provides an inspiring role model to our students graduating today and indeed to all of us.

Chancellor, I present to you Dame Jilian Matheson, who is eminently worthy to receive the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.

Professor Jane Millar OBE

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