Partners launch new regional Research Data Center at UNL

Partners launch new regional Research Data Center at UNL

John Anderson

UNL will soon be home to a regional Research Data Center. These highly secure centers provide researchers access to restricted federal data, allowing them to investigate issues in greater detail.

The Central Plains Research Data Center, a partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau’s Center for Economic Studies, will be joining a network of 18 such centers in the U.S. that are jointly funded by the Census Bureau and the National Science Foundation. UNL won a $300,000 NSF grant to launch the center. The University of Nebraska Medical Center, Iowa State University, the University of Iowa and the University of South Dakota are partnering with UNL to establish the center.

Slated to open in fall 2015, the facility will be housed in UNL’s Whittier Research Center. A U.S. Census Bureau employee will manage the center. Only researchers who receive government clearance and who agree to protect the sensitive data will have access.

This Federal Statistical Research Data Center provides researchers in the social, behavioral, health and life sciences across the region a secure environment that allows access to restricted-use data from the Census Bureau, National Center for Health Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Center for Education Statistics, Department of Transportation, Department of Housing and Urban Development and other federal sources.

“Having this wealth of federal and regional data available on campus will provide unique opportunities for analytics and training across social, behavioral, economic, geographical, environmental and health-related contexts,” said Prem S. Paul, UNL vice chancellor for research and economic development.

“UNL is proud to lead this multi-state partnership, which will enhance our university’s focus on social sciences research,” Paul said. “This center fills an important gap in our central region.”

Jennifer Larsen, UNMC vice chancellor for research, agreed: “Ready access to this center and its data opens new research opportunities as well as opportunities for new research collaborations,” she said.

John Anderson, Baird Family Professor of Economics and the center’s executive director, said the center’s partners are joining an elite group of universities.

“From a research point of view, these centers are veritable gold mines,” he said.

In social or economic research, aggregate data provides a valuable broad view, Anderson said. But individual-level information is essential for exploring issues in greater depth. Secure research data centers provide qualified researchers with approved projects easier access to a rich cache of sensitive individual information.

The new center is a cornerstone for UNL’s new Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Initiative. Accessing individual-level data enables sophisticated analysis of social, economic and other issues to better address challenges facing the region and the nation.

“This center will be transformative for researchers by enabling them to do the kind of studies in the social and behavioral sciences that they haven’t been able to do before,” Anderson said.

UNL faculty have identified a diverse range of potential projects using the center’s data. For example, Anderson plans to tap confidential data to study income inequality, particularly how individuals move up and down the income distribution over time. Other potential projects include merging center and U.S. Department of Agriculture data to study food distribution problems; integrating data from UNL’s National Drought Mitigation Center to explore regional drought experiences; and researching minority health disparities to analyze disease incidence and treatment program effectiveness.

Robert Belli, UNL psychologist and director of UNL’s Survey Research and Methodology Program and UNL’s Gallup Research Center, is the center’s external advisory board chair and lead UNL investigator for the NSF grant.