Nearly $3 million NSF grant will fund UNL-private sector survey research

Released on 11/30/2011, at 2:00 AM
Office of University Communications
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Lincoln, Neb., November 30th, 2011 —

            As society becomes more dependent on polling and survey data, the need to ensure accuracy and reduce errors becomes more critical. A $2.97 million grant from the National Science Foundation to a team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln will be used to find ways to reduce survey error and look at ways to integrate technologies like the Internet and computer-assisted telephone surveys into the next generation of survey tools.

            A UNL research team led by Allan McCutcheon, professor of statistics and survey research and methodology in UNL's Gallup Research Center, will partner on this research with two private firms, Gallup and Abt SRBI. Both companies have strong and long-standing reputations in conducting surveys in the private and public sectors for a variety of needs and uses. The partners and researchers celebrated the collaboration and grant at a Nov. 30 reception in Omaha.

            The grant, one of eight funded by the National Science Foundation in cooperation with the U.S. Census Bureau, aims to try to find more cost-effective and accurate ways to conduct the decennial U.S. Census, McCutcheon said.

            McCutcheon said the 2010 Census, which was viewed with trepidation by many, was salvaged by a new director who relied heavily on scientifically valid survey methods and practices.

            "Still, the 2010 Census was conducted pretty much like the 1910 Census," said McCutcheon, who holds the Donald O. Clifton chair of survey science at UNL. "A mail-in survey followed up by knocks on doors. That's prohibitively expensive. The United States is the only industrialized nation to not use the Internet for its census operation."

            The Census Bureau and NSF are looking for ideas about how to modernize the Census and other federally mandated data-collection activities. University-based researchers will generate the science in bias-neutral ways, McCutcheon said.

            The overarching goal of UNL's research is find ways to reduce measurement error in computerized data collection over the Internet or telephone, which is called "CATI," computer-assisted telephone interview. These are highly scripted interviews with prompts and questions based on respondent answers. The errors derive from sources such as those inadvertently introduced by the interviewer who keys in the answers into the computer for later analysis.

            These errors, McCutcheon said, can be caused by interviewer fatigue and also by respondents who chose to quit the survey prior to completion. McCutcheon's team hopes to find ways to make the computer smarter about detecting when respondents are nearing the end of their patience and looking to close the survey prematurely.

            Gallup and Abt SBRI will collect the survey data, McCutcheon said. Having both companies involved will help ameliorate a common problem called "house effects," he said. Every polling company is subject to house effects -- small but persistent biases. Using both companies to screen for patterns is important because both companies use different, state-of-the-art software, he said. Gallup has an international reputation for conducting a variety of political and other polls. Abt SBRI, also an internationally known company, conducts many surveys for the federal government such as economic indicators research.

            "This is an example both of a private company -- Gallup -- helping the university build research capacity, and then partnering with us to pursue an important research agenda," said UNL chancellor Harvey Perlman.

            UNL's Survey Research and Methodology/Gallup Research Group program is about 15 years old and is one of three programs in the United States to produce doctoral degrees. The others are at the University of Maryland and the University of Michigan; three other universities are launching doctoral programs, McCutcheon said. UNL's landing of this grant confirms the university's reputation for excellence in the discipline, he said, and will help UNL attract the best graduate students and doctoral candidates while contributing to the knowledge base in the field.

            Co-investigators on the project are Robert Belli, professor of psychology and member of the Gallup Research Center; Kristen Olson, assistant professor of sociology and member of the Gallup Research Center; Jolene Smyth, assistant professor of sociology and member of the Gallup Research Center; and Leen-Kiat Soh, associate professor of computer science and engineering at UNL. The five-year grant also will fund several postdoctoral researchers, graduate students and undergraduate students.

            McCutcheon said the discipline of survey research and methodology is becoming more prominent, and graduates are highly recruited by industry. Survey research is important for market research and new democracies need this type of information, he said.

            The field is rapidly exploring using smart phones or what he called "universal communications devices" as ways to conduct surveys and collect data through text messages or other means.

            "The questions are 'how do we do proper sampling with cell phones'? There are all kinds of experiments going on with cell phones, such as how do we incent people to participate?"

            McCutcheon said mini-surveys, which would query a scientifically developed panel of respondents with one or two questions per survey, but keep the panel active over a long period of time, is one newer method being tested.

             "These new technologies are challenging but they also represent huge opportunities."

Writer: Kim Hachiya, University Communications, 402-472-8844