Report Urges Retention of Britain's Census

Dan is a deputy news editor for Science.

Politicians in the United Kingdom, as in many other countries, are thinking hard about whether carrying out a nationwide census is worth the money. Today, a committee of parliamentarians came down firmly on the side of social sciences in a report that favors continuation of the decadal surveys.

"The Census has provided the UK with one of the richest collections of population data in the world. It is incredibly valuable to social researchers, charities and the public sector and a move to cancel the census on financial grounds may prove to be a costly mistake," said Andrew Miller, chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, in a statement.

Some government ministers have argued that other forms of data gathering could take the place of the census and prove much cheaper than the £480 million spent last year to carry out the most recent census. Some countries have already scrapped their censuses, and in the United States, the American Community Survey—a recent replacement for the long form of the decennial census—has come under attack in Congress.

The report by the U.K. parliamentarians concludes that, while other social science surveys cover some of the same ground as the census, they could not replace its breadth. Indeed, some surveys rely on the census for calibration. "Census data provides a snapshot of the whole country at a moment in time which is invaluable to historians and to detect trends in the recent past; it also allows comparisons to be made of different areas in the country more accurately," the report says.

The report did consider some drawbacks of the census, in particular the fact that the data can become quite dated by the end of the 10-year cycle. And it noted that canceling it might trigger a search for alternative ways to obtain the data. "[W]e anticipate that the absence of a census would also potentially stimulate a considerable amount of innovation in social science and examination of how to produce social data of an equivalent standard, but to much quicker timescales, than the current census data," the parliamentarians said.

But the clear benefits of the census led the parliamentarians to oppose its abolition. "We have concerns that social science could suffer if the census was to be discontinued without serious consideration as to how this data would be replaced." Miller said: "Ministers must think hard before they take the decision to scrap the census."

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