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Meet NCSES Director Lynda Carlson

1 November 2011 1,394 views No Comment
Amstat News invited Lynda Carlson, director of the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES), to respond to the following questions so readers could learn more about her and the agency she leads. Look for other statistical agency head interviews in past and forthcoming issues.

Lynda Carlson

Lynda Carlson earned her PhD in political science from the University of Illinois and has been NCSES director since February of 2000. Before then, she was the director of the Statistics and Methods Group Energy Information Administration at the U.S. Department of Energy.

What have you enjoyed most about being head of NCSES?

Leading redesigns of NCSES data collection and analysis programs to expand and improve data and products on the science and engineering (S&E) enterprise. I have especially enjoyed challenges allowing me to think outside the box to meet needs of a broad and expanding spectrum of users. An example was NCSES’s effort—in collaboration with the Office of Management and Budget, U.S. Census Bureau, and others—to add a Field of Degree (FOD) question to the American Community Survey (ACS) in 2009. The new question not only has significant benefits to NCSES—a far more efficient sampling frame for the National Survey of College Graduates (NSCG) and annual ACS data on the inflows of foreign scientists into the United States—but also provides a rich new source of data for other users, including other statistical agencies.

Working at NSF has been an incredible experience. The foundation is dynamic, nimble, and incredibly supportive of both its staff and programs.

Fast Facts

Part of the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences

Website: www.nsf.gov/statistics

FY11 budget: $41.2 million

Staff size: 47

What do you see as the biggest challenge(s) for NCSES, and have they changed significantly since you started this position?

The biggest challenge will be maintaining a continuous quality improvement process for NCSES surveys, analyses, and methodology in a period of declining resources. An ongoing problem for NCSES is the number of staff. During my 11 years at NCSES, while the center’s responsibilities and budget have increased dramatically (the budget more than doubled), staffing levels have not increased. The small size of the staff limits the amount of analysis we can do of our own data, the pace at which we can implement new activities and improvements in existing ones, the timeliness of release of our data, and the extent of oversight of survey contractors (all NCSES surveys are conducted by contractors or the Census Bureau). Timeliness is, of course, a challenge for all statistical agencies, but particularly so for an agency such as NSF that is so constrained by staff size. What has changed significantly is the quality of NCSES staff. I am confident the highly qualified, experienced, and dynamic NCSES staff will handle these challenges in a highly professional and creative manner.

Describe your top two or three priorities for NCSES.

In December 2010, legislation changed the name of the organization from the Division of Science Resources Statistics (SRS) to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) and broadened the organization’s mandate, which were changes NSF and SRS had initiated. NCSES’s responsibilities were expanded in three major areas: (1) producing the data and analyses necessary to examine U.S. competitiveness in science and engineering, (2) collecting enhanced data on the condition and progress of U.S. STEM education, and (3) support of research. A major priority in the near future is responding to these expanded responsibilities, a challenge in light of constrained financial and staff resources. Another priority is completing the development phase and beginning full-scale implementation of three major projects—the Early Career Researchers (postdocs) Data Collection activity; the Microbusiness Innovation, Science, and Technology Survey; and an innovation module for the Business R&D and Innovation Survey (BRDIS).

What do you see as the role for the broader statistical community in supporting NCSES?

Our updated enabling legislation expanded NCSES’s mission to include support of research using the data we collect, research on methodologies in areas related to our work, and educating/training researchers in the use of large-scale, nationally representative data sets. We will look to the broader federal statistical community to devise approaches to implement those responsibilities.

To augment our limited in-house staff, we have established a series of external arrangements for statistical/methodological support of possible interest to other small statistical agencies. Through the National Agricultural Statistics Service, we have a long-standing cooperative agreement with Washington State University and a new one with the University of Nebraska. These provide access to outstanding survey methodologists, who have provided invaluable assistance in (re)designing NCSES surveys. We now are funding several postdocs at the National Institute of Statistical Sciences, who provide additional resources to tackle methodological/statistical issues. We would like to establish additional arrangements with statisticians to help us address our expanded responsibilities.

What do you see as the biggest accomplishment of the agency during your tenure?

Most important is the institution of a continuous improvement process for all NCSES activities. This led to the science policy community’s recognition of NCSES’s critical role and the quality of its products, which in turn led to the transformation of SRS into NCSES. Other accomplishments, all manifestations of the first, are the following:

    —Development of BRDIS, which is producing incredible, important new data in partnership with the Census Bureau

    —Addition of the FOD question onto the ACS with its attendant benefits

    —Transformation of the congressionally mandated biennial Science and Engineering Indicators (SEI) report to include a new Digest, which is a highly interactive document with interactive databases on a key indicators (the model developed for the SEI Digest has since been implemented in two other Digests)

    —The establishment of a Survey Sponsor Data Center (the first) located at NSF (December 2011) that will allow NCSES staff to work with NCSES funded/Census-collected NSCG and BRDIS onsite in collaboration with the Census Bureau

Editor’s note: This version corrects NCSES staffing levels
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