Texas A&M University is now home to one of only a handful of regional labs where researchers can access valuable federal datasets. That’s thanks to the addition of the Texas Census Research Data Center (TXCRDC) in Texas A&M University’s Research Park. The new TXCRDC opened this fall under the direction of Mark Fossett, a sociology professor in the College of Liberal Arts. The National Science Foundation awarded Texas A&M a three-year grant to open the center on Texas A&M's College Station campus. 

Fossett has been leading the effort involving many faculty from across the university to open a census research data center in Texas for nearly four years.  He recognized a need for the center at Texas A&M and also at other research institutions across the state. Part of his role as director of the TXCRDC is to enter into dialog with researchers and administrators at universities and research institutions in the region that are interested in joining the consortium. 

With the support of the College of Liberal Arts, Fossett visited existing CRDCs to ask their researchers, directors and administrators more about the capabilities and operating requirements of CRDCs. He also met with Robert Groves, director of the U.S. Census Bureau, and Ron Jarmin, director of the CRDC program for guidance writing a proposal to the National Science Foundation and the United States Census Bureau to open a CRDC in Texas.

“We wanted our faculty to benefit from having researchers from other institutions here and connecting them to our campus,” Fossett said.

Census Research Data Centers are part of a secure network of Census Bureau facilities at approximately a dozen other universities and research institutions around the nation. The CRDCs are overseen by the Census Bureau’s Center for Economic Studies.  They were developed by the National Science Foundation to give scholars a means of accessing restricted data from federal agencies such as the U.S. Census Bureau, the National Center for Health Statistics, the Agency for the Healthcare Research and Quality, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The CRDC network is part of an effort to better serve the needs of basic science and policy research by making more data available while protecting the confidentiality of survey participants. The centers are only available for use by highly qualified research professionals who undergo background screening and training.

Researchers will have access to economic, demographic, and health data in the federal statistical and administrative records system. Only researchers whose projects have been approved by the Census Bureau will have access to the center.

The certification process can take months to complete. Proposed projects must demonstrate scientific merit and pose no risk of disclosure of sensitive information. Research results can be taken from the secure computing environment only after a rigorous Census review to assure confidentiality has been maintained. Projects must require non-public data for completion and provide a benefit to the Census Bureau.

The TXCRDC is supported by a multi-university consortium including Texas A&M University, The Texas A&M University System, Baylor University, and The University of Texas at Austin.  Members of the consortium will provide annual funding to the TXCRDC, and researchers at these institutions will be able to use the data center for free of additional charges.

“If your faculty would benefit using the data at the center, the smart thing for a university to do would be to buy a consortium membership,” Fossett said.

The TXCRDC is the first data center to open within 800 miles of Texas A&M.  Until now, researchers in Texas universities using census datasets had to travel to the other centers to access their files.

“There are faculty at Baylor, Rice, and UT that have active projects but must currently travel to distant centers to conduct their research. They can walk in the door as soon as we open,” said Fossett last spring.

Faculty members who are interested in utilizing the center may begin submitting their proposals immediately. Fossett predicts that those who submit their proposals early will have a likelier chance of clearing the review, training, and security processes to begin work on their projects.

The TXCRDC has a staff composed of two faculty members in the department of sociology and three graduate students. They are available to assist researchers in developing their proposals.