The Rise of R-should SAS programmers get up to speed?

Posted by Cytel

Jun 29, 2016 8:00:00 AM


The Rise of R: Should SAS programmers get up to speed?

Rwordcloud.jpgRecently, IBM announced that it was becoming a Platinum sponsor of the R Consortium.  It’s well known that R is one of the most commonly used data-analytics and machine-learning languages in the world right now.  Across vertical markets, demand for R skills is on a steep upward curve. While demand for SAS still appears to be higher across the board some analysis suggests that if trends continue, then demand for R skills could match SAS in the next few years (1) . Within the pharmaceutical industry though, it’s traditionally been a somewhat different story, with trends not necessarily replicating the broader business environment. SAS programming use is undoubtedly more widespread, and for many has been considered as the must-have.  However, it’s clear that while uptake in pharma may be slower than general industry, the skills  landscape does appear to be changing.   A review of open positions on showed a number of roles requesting R skills at least as a complement to SAS.  

Traditionally, within a pharma setting R has been used more for simulations than for analysis, and in exploratory rather than confirmatory settings.  At Cytel, many of our programmers are experienced in R and harness its capabilities in this way.  Some advantages of R are:

  • Ability to create effective visualisations/ graphics
  • Flexibility to combine with other tools/ own code ( for example can link with Cytel’s East)
  • Ability to bring new methods to the table very quickly
  • As an open source environment it supports collaboration- and therefore innovation.
  • It’s free

Of course, the latter two points are also connected to the perceived drawbacks of R within the strongly regulated pharmaceutical industry.  While innovative approaches can be created and shared in R packages very quickly, the lack of ownership and formal environment means that additional work needs to be conducted to ensure proper validation. 

There is a lingering misconception that submissions to the FDA and other agencies should not, and cannot rely on R.   This is not the case (2) . However, any software used to prepare data analysis needs to comply with the relevant regulations and guidelines.

Perhaps the real question here is not whether to choose R over SAS or SAS over R but how to choose the right tool in a given situation, to ensure the best outcomes.


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1) Hilbe, J.M. (2012) The popularity of data analysis software. Available at: (Accessed: 21 June 2016).

2) Smith, D. (2015) ‘FDA: R OK for drug trials’, September. Available at: (Accessed: 21 June 2016).







Topics: Statistical Programming, Simulations, biostatistics, SAS, R programming

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