Science Career Survey Question in Peril

question marksA proposed small adjustment to an annual survey of the American people could have big – and negative – consequences for the science community, the National Science Board is warning.

Every year since 2005 the U.S. Census Bureau has conducted the American Community Survey to collect data to guide policy and spending decisions by local, state and federal governments. Essentially the “long form” of the census, the 72-question survey this year was thoroughly reviewed by the bureau, was “seeking to understand which federal programs use the information collected by each question, the justification for each question, and assess how the Census Bureau might reduce respondent burden.”

At the end of that review, seven questions were identified as having both no mandated government use and low benefit (although the process also noted each question added little burden to the respondent).

Among the seven questions on the chopping block, five ask about changes in marital status, one asks if there is a business or medical office at the home address – and one asks about the respondent’s undergraduate’s field of study:

Person Question No. 12—Undergraduate Field of Degree—This question focuses on this person’s Bachelor’s Degree. Please print below the specific major(s) of any Bachelor’s Degrees this person has received.

Answers to this degree question, according to the National Science Board, do not have a low benefit – it says they are the only source “comprehensive information about the U.S. science and engineering workforce.”

Specifically,the ACS “Field of Degree” question enables[National Science Foundation]’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) to identify scientists and engineers,a rare segment of the U.S. population. Elimination of this question will reduce the quality and utility of data essential to fulfilling NCSES’ mandate to “…collect,acquire, analyze,report,and disseminate statistical data related to the science and engineering enterprise in the United States.” Among the specific impacts,elimination of this question will adversely affect the quality and availability of data for the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators report and the Women,Minorities,and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering report,both mandated by Congress.

The National Science Foundation would still want the information, according to the board, but obtaining it would cost more and the results would likely be less accurate than the existing survey drawn from talking to roughly one out of every 38 Americans a year.

The suite of question on marriage status also have social science uses, the president-elect of the Population Association of America (a Social Science Space partner) told Anna Sutherland at the Family Studies blog. Steven Ruggles noted that the loss of those questions creates a perfect storm of data blindness, since states have stopped much of their data gathering and other ongoing studies like the Survey of Income and Program Participation and the National Survey of Family Growth are not perfect instruments for exploring relationship trends. “We’d be the only industrial country in the world that can’t measure age-specific marriage and divorce rates” — and at a time when “marriage is changing more rapidly than at any time in history.”

Although the Census Bureau has proposed killing the questions, it’s taking comments on the proposal until December 30. It’s not a quixotic endeavor to change minds — the “number of time married “questions were on the block last year, too, and was saved after a concerted effort to defend their utility.  “Now, the Number of Times Married question is back on the chopping block,” the Minnesota Population Center argues, “along with four other questions that are crucial for the study of family demography, so the need for an effective response is even greater than it was 18 months ago.”

Those sharing concerns about the loss of any of these questions are asked to comment HERE before December 30.

An American Community infographic image [Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey]

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