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AAAS Urges Census Bureau Not to Drop Survey Question on Undergraduate Majors

AAAS has urged the U.S. Census Bureau not to drop a question about undergraduate degrees from its annual American Community Survey (ACS) that is used by the National Science Foundation and others to help track changes in the American science and engineering workforce.

The Bureau, an arm of the Department of Commerce, has proposed dropping seven questions from its annual survey, including one that asks those with bachelor's degrees to specify the field in which they majored. That information is important for groups that follow developments in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

The Commerce Department is seeking public comments by 31 December on the proposed changes to the ACS, which compiles detailed socioeconomic information that formerly was collected via a long-form questionnaire as part of the once-a-decade census. The annual survey now provides more current data about communities, with about 3.5 million addresses being selected each year for survey participation. Some members of Congress have been seeking to shorten or even eliminate the annual survey, which they see as intrusive and burdensome.

But scientific and statistical organizations, among others, have expressed concerns about efforts to retool the survey.

Results from the question on undergraduate major are "critical to enhancing our understanding of national trends in STEM at a time when other countries are expanding their own investments in research and generating an ever expanding number of graduates with degrees in STEM fields," AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner wrote in an 18 December letter to the Department of Commerce.

Such data, he said, "allow federal agencies, universities, industry, and non-profit organizations to make more informed decisions in the development of new programs, the recruitment of STEM graduates, and the determination of investment opportunities."

The National Science Foundation's National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) uses information from the ACS as part of its charge by Congress to collect, analyze and disseminate statistical data on the science and engineering workforce.

In a comment to the Commerce Department, Dan E. Arvizu, chairman of the National Science Board & — which establishes policies for NSF — wrote that the question about undergraduate majors "has been a key tool for both the Census Bureau and NSF to conduct surveys of scientists and engineers for several decades." He added, "Based on the preliminary analysis of NCSES, if it needed to collect these data in an alternate fashion, the cost in taxpayer dollars would likely run in the tens of millions of dollars, greatly increase the burden on the public, and the data quality would suffer."

The American Statistical Association also has weighed in on the issue. Ron Wasserstein, executive director of ASA, noted in a comment that "collection of field of degree information through the ACS was so efficient and so effective" that it allowed NSF to discontinue its National Survey of Recent College Graduates. Wasserstein urged retention of the question on undergraduate majors, noting that "this question is viewed as being a light burden on respondents who take only nine seconds (on average) to respond to it."

Removing the question "is not good for science and is not good for an economy whose growth is driven by advances in science and technology," Leshner concluded on behalf of AAAS. "We strongly recommend that it remain as part of the American Community Survey."

[Credit for associated teaser image: Flickr/ Patrick Mansell]