Frequently Asked Questions
1. How long does it take to develop a proposal and start an RDC-based project?
There is no simple answer to this question as the best answer can vary depending on many factors. The best way to explore the issue is through conversations with the TXRDC Executive Director and the RDC Administrator.
The following notes provide some indication of what the key issues are. RDC projects require formal proposals. Proposals undergo formal review. Researchers on approved projects must undergo special training to obtain Special Sworn Status to use the RDC lab. Data sets for projects must be prepared by Census (and/or others) and then placed on the RDC network to be accessed by researchers. Each of these steps involves time. This must be taken into account when considering and planning RDC projects.
TXRDC project proposals must be previewed by and routed through TXRDC (to obtain approval for TXRDC lab access). The proposals are then submitted for review by Census (and/or other relevant agencies). Proposal requirements vary depending on many factors. The RDC Administrator can give guidance on requirements and how best to proceed. First time RDC researchers and researchers planning complex projects should expect at least 30-60 days (1-2 months) for proposal development time. In practice, it often takes longer. Researchers with previous RDC experience and straightforward projects usually move forward more quickly.
Once a proposal is submitted, the review process will usually take at least 90-120 days (3-4 months). Projects that draw on data governed by stricter review requirements will take longer. Projects are not always approved and may require multiple submissions to gain approval. (This risk can be greatly reduced by working closely with the RDC Administrator when developing the proposal.)
Once a project is approved, the researchers on the project become eligible to apply for special sworn status (SSS). SSS is necessary to gain access to the secure lab. Expect the application, approval review, and security training to take 90 days (3 months) or more. It can take longer for non-US citizens. Approval is not guaranteed but is likely for most applicants. The RDC Administrator can address questions about the factors that can cause approval to be delayed or denied.
Once special sworn status is obtained, the relevant project data sets are moved to the RDC server. The time involved can vary. It is less for when the data sets the project will use have been used by other recent projects. It is more when the needed data sets are new or have not been used by recent projects.
Adding everything up, an optimistic “low” estimate is 7-9 months. That is just a “rule-of-thumb” figure. With good luck the process can be a little quicker; but it is more likely to run longer.
2. How do I learn what restricted-access data sets are available and what the characteristics of these data sets are?
The website for the Center for Enterprise Dissemination (CED) at US Census Bureau provides the most up to date posted information about available data sets. The TXRDC website provides related resources including suggestions for how to explore what kinds of data have been used by previous RDC research projects.
Information about available data is often hard to obtain. The RDC Administrator is an important resource for answering these questions. Researchers should contact the RDC Administrator to verify information they have located on their own and to pose questions that researchers cannot answer on their own.
3. Can graduate students work on projects in the RDC?
Graduate students can work on RDC projects in at least two capacities. First, graduate students can work on RDC projects as research assistants working with senior investigators who have active projects. In addition, doctoral students can work on dissertation and other advanced projects where they are the principle investigator.
Graduate students wishing to undertake RDC projects must have the endorsement and support of a faculty-level research (usually the student’s committee chair).
Graduate students undertaking RDC projects to meet degree requirements (e.g., dissertation projects) must review the timeline for their project with the RDC Executive Director to gain approval. The purpose of this review is to assure that the anticipated timeline is realistic and also to assure that all concerned (e.g., committee chair and committee members) are fully informed about the nature of RDC research projects and how it can impact student progress toward degree completion.
4. What are the differences between public and restricted access data sets?
Restricted-access data sets involve data that are covered by federal regulations concerning confidentiality. Restricted data can sometimes be used for statistical analysis in the RDC research environment, but only if all federal regulations are met in both letter and spirit.
Protecting confidentiality is the highest priority of the RDC network. All other concerns are secondary. Researchers should gain an understanding of the implications this carries for RDC-based research projects.
5. How do I submit a proposal?
Proposals are submitted through the RDC Administrator.
Proposals ultimately are reviewed by Census (and/or other agencies such as the IRS and others as appropriate). Proposals should not be submitted directly to these agencies. Project use of the TXRDC secure lab requires that the proposed project gain prior approval for lab access from the TXRDC Executive Director and the RDC administrator. Census will return proposals that bypass TXRDC internal review and may potentially impose additional penalties.
The purpose of TXRDC internal review is to facilitate RDC research. Internal review is geared to increasing the chances for success on Census review. It primarily focuses on non-scientific “risk factors” such as project feasibility, realistic time lines, and proper arrangements for lab access. TXRDC endorsement thus signals to Census that the project proposed has been vetted on feasibility and lab access.
6. How long does the review process take after a proposal has been submitted?
This is addressed in more detail in a broader discussion of project timelines (above). Briefly, review time varies but will usually take 90-120 days (3-4 months) and may take more. Relevant factors include the complexity of the project and which federal regulations apply the data being used in the project.
7. Can international researchers (i.e., non US citizens) use the RDC?
Non-US citizens can work on RDC-based research projects including as principle investigator.
Researchers and graduate students must have appropriate institutional affiliations and proper arrangements to lab access.
Review to obtain special sworn status (SSS) takes longer for non-US citizens.
8. Do I have to conduct analysis in the secure lab at College Station?
Generally speaking, yes. Analysis of restricted-access data can only be conducted in the physical site of the secure computing lab. The TXRDC’s secure lab is in College Station, Texas (101 D. L. Houston Bldg, 200 Discovery Drive). There is no option for remote access; researchers must be on site to use the lab. They also must have Special Sworn Status to gain access to the secure lab.
There are two exceptions. One exception is that, with proper arrangements, researchers can conduct research in secure labs at other RDC sites in the national RDC network. Thus, for example, a researcher with a TXRDC project could potentially conduct analysis at another RDC site. The second exception is that researchers can, with proper arrangements, conduct some forms of analysis from long distance by working with a TXRDC research analyst who is on site.
9. How much does it cost to carry out a research project in the RDC?
All RDCs charge fees to help cover the expenses of operating the facility. RDCs are all part of the same national network and do not compete on fees. But specific fees can vary by locality and project depending on a variety of factors (e.g., consortium memberships, complexity and scale of projects, etc.). Lab fees for the TXRDC are similar to those at other RDCs – $20,000 per year, per project for “census” projects, and $15,000 per year, per project for “NCHS” projects.
The time “clock” does not start until the researcher first accesses the data in the secure lab. From that point most projects usually require two years of lab access and many require more.
Researchers from TXRDC Consortium institutions receive much more favorable terms for project fees. This is because their institutions have made long-term funding commitments to the TXRDC. For researchers at consortium institutions, project fees for externally funded projects are $10,000 per project per year (to give priority seat access in support of project timetables). Lab fees often are waived entirely for exploratory and unfunded projects conducted on a lower priority, available access basis.
10. What is the TXRDC Consortium?
The TXRDC Consortium is a group of institutions that have made long-term funding commitments to support the TXRDC. Their participation makes the TXRDC viable. In return, researchers at these institutions receive favorable terms for using the services and facilities the TXRDC offers.
Texas A&M University is the lead institution in the consortium. The Texas A&M University System, Baylor University, and the University of Texas at Austin were founding members of the consortium. Rice University and University of Texas at San Antonio also are consortium members.
Consortium membership is the preferred and most cost-effective way for research institutions to give researchers access to the resources of the TXRDC. TXRDC welcomes inquiries about institutional membership. Please contact the Executive Director to learn about membership costs, the various ways institutions can cover these costs, and the benefits and responsibilities associated with membership.
11.What is a research analyst?
The TXRDC can, under certain circumstances, assign a research analyst to assist researchers who are undertaking RDC projects. The purpose of doing so is to facilitate the preparation and review of preliminary data sets that will be used to prepare data sets for primary analysis (e.g., by merging files, inspecting variables, sub-setting cases, etc.). This can then make it possible for researchers from out of College Station to be more productive when they travel to College Station to perform analyses in the lab.
Research analysts generally do not directly conduct or assist with primary data analysis for a project. Assistance of this nature must be negotiated with the Executive Director and will usually involve special fees or arrangements.
12. Can I use the RDC to perform “special tabulations” to generate detailed, custom data for public distribution and use in research and planning?
Simply put, “probably not”. More optimistically, the answer is “maybe”, but only with careful thought and planning to overcome difficult obstacles.
Researchers can generate detailed tabulations as part of the analyses conducted to answer the questions posed by the research project. In general, however, these tabulations cannot be made public and used outside of the secure lab. The reason for this is simple; federal regulations protecting confidentiality impose strict guidelines on the kinds of tabulations data that can be publicly released. Most special tabulations cannot be released under these guidelines.
The Census Bureau will discuss the possibility of preparing special tabulations on a contract basis. Tabulations are subject to the usual restrictions on confidentiality and related concerns. The RDC cannot be used for the purpose of preparing special tabulations.
The internal TXRDC proposal review and the Census proposal review both give close attention to the question of what data products from the project can be released for public distribution. The issue is important to project feasibility. Accordingly, researchers should consult with the RDC Administrator early in the proposal development process to gain a better understanding of this and other issues relating to “disclosure” of project results.
13. What are census benefits? Why are they required in some RDC projects? Is it difficult to satisfy this requirement when it applies?
First point, the issue of census benefits does not apply to all RDC research projects. For example, the issue does not apply to projects that use NCHS health data.
However, projects that use restricted-access census data must provide census benefits. These are benefits that a research project generates for the U.S. Census Bureau by contributing to improving the Census’ activities and procedures; often they involve generating useful information to the Census regarding their data products and the procedures used to generate the data products.
Census benefits are mandated by the federal regulations that specify the conditions under which researchers can work with restricted access census data. They are important and non-negotiable for “census” projects as it is the legal basis for allowing researchers to work with restricted access data.
Most projects have good potential to provide census benefits. So the requirement typically will not be an obstacle to undertaking an RDC project.
The RDC Administrator is well-informed on the relevant issues and can help researchers identify the potential benefits a project can provide. We advise researchers to discuss the issue with the RDC Administrator before giving time and effort to thinking about census benefits.
A longer discussion of this subject can be found at the following link on Census Benefits.
14. Are “benefits” required for all RDC projects?
Yes, but the nature of the requirement varies. All RDC projects must provide some kind of recognized benefit. But the kinds of benefits that are recognized depends on the type of restricted-access data used in the project.
Projects that use restricted-access data from NCHS can meet the benefits requirement by generating new knowledge that helps improve understanding of public health. Most NCHS projects easily meet this requirement.
Projects that use restricted-access census data must specifically contribute to improving census data products and the procedures that generate the data products. Most projects can meet this requirement. But what is required is more specific in nature. So researchers must give close attention to understanding what benefits will be recognized as appropriate.
Projects that use restricted-access data in the federal statistical that are not “standard” census data products, often are subject to additional benefit requirements. Projects can and regularly do meet these requirements. But researchers must give close attention to understanding what will be recognized as appropriate.
15.What are Research Data Centers (RDCs) and how many are there?
Research Data Centers (RDCs) are U.S. Census Bureau facilities, staffed by a Census Bureau employee, which meet all physical and computer security requirements for access to restricted-use data. At RDCs, qualified researchers with approved projects receive restricted access to selected non-public Census Bureau data files. Currently, there are about two dozen Research Data Center locations around the United States. Click here to learn more about the various locations.
16.What is Special Sworn Status?
The Census Bureau gives Special Sworn Status to individuals to conduct work that specifically benefits a Census Bureau program. Title 13 of the U.S. Code permits these activities under Section 23 (c). Moreover, these individuals are sworn to protect the data as Census Bureau employees are sworn, and they are subject to the same legal obligations and penalties.
17.How does an individual or organization apply to conduct research at an RDC?
Researchers first work with an individual RDC location to negotiate terms of lab access and establish feasibility of the project. Next they develop a proposal to be approved by the local RDC and then submitted for formal review by the Center for Enterprise Dissemination (CED) and/or other relevant agency (the National Center for Health Statistics).
18.Who determines whether a researcher is eligible to do work at an RDC?
All proposals to carry out research at an RDC must be approved by the Census Bureau. If data are provided by other agencies (e.g., the Social Security Administration), the other agencies must approve of the project as well.