Meet John Gawalt, Director of the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics
Amstat News invited John Gawalt, director of the National Science Foundation’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, to respond to the following questions so readers could learn more about him and the agency he leads.
John Gawalt served as deputy director for the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) and, prior to that, program director for its Information and Technology Services Program, where he was responsible for design, development, and operation of the NCSES website; traditional and electronic publishing; online data access; database management; and general information technology support. Gawalt’s formal training is in natural resources and resource economics, with a focus on the econometric study of the fishing industry.
What about this position appealed to you?
I love statistics and I love science. Where else would I be content than in a statistical office within the National Science Foundation? I began my federal career as a summer student at USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] in the Economic Research Service and moved to the Consumer and Producer Price Programs at the Bureau of Labor Statistics before coming to NCSES. I believe federal service to be an honorable profession—I have known and worked with many dedicated, caring, and talented people. NCSES has provided me a variety of challenging opportunities these past 20 years, so why not give something back?
Describe the top 2–3 priorities you have for the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.
We are solidly in the Information Age (Is that term still used?) and are seeing increased demand for data and information. This coupled with the desire for quicker access will place continued pressure on NCSES to make its data and reports available in flexible formats and through different channels. We need to adjust processes and take additional measures to reduce the time between the data reference date and data release date.
That said, we must always remember the trust our clients have in the quality of our data and in the methods we use to collect and protect them. We must continue to ensure that data published as official statistics are of the highest quality and that they accurately reflect the concepts they are intended to measure.
The value of our data is increased by ensuring it is collected and prepared in ways that allow comparisons with similar data from other organizations and other nations. NCSES will continue to collaborate with international organizations, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), to improve the extent and comparability of data on the science and engineering enterprise worldwide.
What do you see as your biggest challenge(s) for NCSES?
National competitiveness is a subject of keen interest these days as the country works its way out of the great recession, and capital and human resource investments in science and technology are seen as key factors in our continued success. NCSES is constantly challenged to develop new and better measures of these investments and their outcomes. We will continue to develop methodologies and develop approaches (both survey and non-survey) to improve our current measures and fill gaps in new and emerging areas of interest.
We also are challenged to modernize our internal data systems to better support externally facing systems that will provide improved access to data and metadata.
What kind of support from the statistical community do you look for?
NCSES is fortunate to have a strong, talented, and motivated staff, with rich experience in survey research, data acquisition and analysis, and data/information presentation. We are, however, an organization of fewer than 50 people. We rely greatly upon the broader statistical community to provide the infrastructure to grow and nurture a cadre of statisticians with a love for the science and a sense of creativity in its application. We also are fortunate to engage in many ways with colleagues across government, in the commercial sector, and in academe on topics large and small. We value this collaboration and the exchange of ideas.
Prior to your tenure, what do you see as the biggest recent accomplishment of the agency?
I am fortunate to inherit a talented, capable, and knowledgeable staff, expert in a wide range of statistical and subject matter areas. A great deal of thought and effort on the part of staff and management went into building our current organization, and this should be recognized. In addition, every survey has received a careful internal review over the past decade, and many have been subject of review by the NRC’s Committee on National Statistics. I am confident that NCSES’ surveys are on a solid methodological foundation, structured to continue producing high-quality, relevant data that meet the needs of our clients. We are well positioned to move forward and add to our many accomplishments.