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UNL working to establish Research Data Center

datacentersEstablishing a Research Data Center at UNL would enhance research, expand opportunities for faculty to seek competitive funding and help attract top faculty and students.

UNL faculty learned about these and other benefits of hosting an RDC during a presentation May 13 that drew nearly 140 people from UNL, other University of Nebraska campuses and potential collaborators. RDCs are partnerships between the research institutions that host them and the U.S. Census Bureau’s Center for Economic Studies.

This summer, UNL will submit a proposal to the National Science Foundation seeking start-up funding to establish the Nebraska Census Research Data Center at UNL, the first RDC in the Great Plains. The closest of the nation’s 15 RDCs now are in Minneapolis, Chicago and Ann Arbor, Mich.

The new center would support researchers in social, behavioral, health and life sciences across the region by providing secure access to non-public, restricted-use data held by the Census Bureau and other federal sources. RDCs are known for strengthening research infrastructure and serving as magnets for faculty recruitment and retention, said Regina Werum, associate vice chancellor for research.

Evidence of an active, engaged research community with diverse projects that would benefit from access to RDC data is a key consideration in NSF’s assessment, Werum said.

To strengthen UNL’s proposal, organizers are asking faculty and graduate students to provide brief project sketches that outline a research idea, a clear need for restricted-use data that an RDC would provide and benefits of the research. For more information on how to prepare project sketches, including example templates, contact Mindy Anderson-Knott, (402) 472-7218, Survey, Statistics and Psychometrics Core Facility manager, who is coordinating plans for UNL’s RDC proposal.

“Showing a wide range of expertise will strengthen our proposal, so we appreciate the faculty’s ideas for project sketches,” Werum said.

Based on turnout for the meeting, faculty interest appears strong. Participants filled every table in the room, which had been changed to accommodate the large crowd.

“This is by far the largest group we’ve ever seen,” said Shawn Klimek, assistant center chief for research at the Census Bureau’s Center for Economic Studies. He was one of three speakers from the Census Bureau and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who outlined the benefits and processes of an RDC.

Through the RDCs, researchers help improve the utility and quality of census data, Klimek said. Rigorous analysis via an RDC can identify strengths and weaknesses in the data.

“It may be possible to create new products that leverage the value of data that’s already been collected,” he said. For example, researchers may be able to address important research or policy questions without the need to collect additional data.

The micro-level data offer far greater detail than publicly available information, providing a rich resource for expanding the depth and quality of research. RDCs also support opportunities for interdisciplinary, multi-institutional research partnerships.

“Data security is core to what we do,” Klimek said. RDCs provide a highly secure environment for approved researchers to review data. The Census Bureau approves all RDC projects, participating researchers swear a lifelong oath to protect confidentiality of the data, and research results must be aggregated.

“You should think about model-based output,” he said, adding that this approach makes it easier to prevent disclosure.

Barbara Downs, RDC lead administrator for the Census Bureau’s Center for Economic Studies, said the administrator of each RDC is a Census Bureau employee who will help researchers prepare proposals to access data through the RDC.

Criteria for research proposals to the Census Bureau include:

  • Demonstrated scientific merit and a need for non-public data.
  • Clearly defined benefits to the Census Bureau.
  • Project feasibility, given the data.
  • No risk of disclosure.

“Whoever is the RDC administrator should become a very good friend,” Downs said. “They will help you develop a really good proposal.”

Being part of an RDC also helps researchers “get to know people within the Census Bureau who know about the sort of data you’re working with,” she added.

More information about RDCs is available at the Census Bureau’s RDC Research Opportunities website.



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