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New Census Director: Scientists Say They Can Count on Him

3 April 2009 10:40 am
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Statisticians and other social scientists are delighted with President Barack Obama's decision to nominate Robert M. Groves as the next census director. This is a solid, scientifically important appointment," says former Census Director Kenneth Prewitt, now a professor at Columbia University. "Early on, it was the person I was quite enthusiastic about when I pulled out," says Prewitt, who withdrew his name from consideration as census director shortly after Senator Judd Gregg (R–NH) decided he didn't want to run the Commerce Department.

Groves is a sociologist who directs the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center in Ann Arbor, at which, according to his Web site, he studies "how alternative research designs affect the utility of data collected."

From 1990–92, he worked at the Census Bureau as associate director of statistical design. The Consortium of Social Science Associations issued a statement lauding the choice. But some Republicans have taken the appointment as a sign that the White House is taking a political stance on the issue of "sampling"—a hot-button issue because of debates over how to handle undercounted minorities.

According to Prewitt, the debate focuses on a type of sampling called "dual system estimation," or "capture-recapture." A term from wildlife studies, it entails capturing and tagging animals. You let them go and then you capture more. From the ratio of tagged to untagged animals in this group, he says, you can make a fairly accurate estimate of population size. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1999 ruled against this method for apportioning House seats, but it's generally endorsed by statisticians, Prewitt says. Other uses of data sampling are uncontroversial. "The entire country runs on sample data," notes Prewitt. Everyone agrees that there's no time to do this type of sampling in the 2010 census. "It's a rocket that's on the launch pad, and they're about to ignite it; … we can't redesign rocket fuel at this stage," says Prewitt. Nonetheless, some Republicans are still worried about it. Darrell Issa (R–CA), the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, proclaimed that the choice of Groves "contradicts the Administration's assurances that the census process would not be used to advance an ulterior political agenda."

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