09:40 AM

$52 million contract will allow Ohio State to continue running huge national surveys

COLUMBUS, Ohio – A $52 million federal contract renewal will allow The Ohio State University to continue a long-running national survey project that captures America’s story.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, part of the Department of Labor, recently awarded Ohio State the 4.5-year contract to run the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth through November 2019. These three separate surveys have followed more than 30,000 Americans for years, some since 1979, interviewing them at least every two years.

While the NLS may not be familiar to most people, it is one of the largest and most influential tools available to social scientists, said Randall Olsen, director of Ohio State’s Center for Human Resource Research (CHRR), which administers the NLS.

Although a primary focus of some of the surveys is labor force behavior, they also include detailed questions on a variety of other topics such as educational attainment, training investments, income and assets, health conditions, workplace injuries, insurance, alcohol and substance abuse, sexual activity, and marital and fertility histories.

Researchers have generated more than 8,600 published studies, dissertations and books based on NLS data.

Randall Olsen

NLS data has helped researchers explain how various levels of education translate into jobs, how poverty impacts child development, the long-term effects of breastfeeding on children and the impact of divorce on people’s wealth.

Elizabeth Cooksey

“This is big science,” said Olsen, who is also a professor of economics. “Physicists have the Large Hadron Collider. Social scientists have the NLS.”

Ohio State has helped run the NLS since its inception nearly 50 years ago. Overall, the NLS program has brought more than $400 million in funding to Ohio State.

“Ohio State’s success in conducting these national surveys has helped make the university a world leader in social science research,” said Ohio State President Michael V. Drake. “We are proud to lead a critical data resource that supports researchers from around the world in finding solutions that elevate society.”

Caroline Whitacre, vice president for research at Ohio State, said the NLS makes contributions in a variety of scientific fields.

“Researchers from medicine to sociology to economics and other widely varying fields utilize the data that is interpreted here at Ohio State,” Whitacre said. “The NLS is an important part of what makes Ohio State a research powerhouse.”

Along with Olsen, the NLS is run by Elizabeth Cooksey, professor of sociology, and Audrey Light, professor of economics. Olsen is retiring from Ohio State in July, at which point Cooksey will be heading the CHRR and the NLS.

The new contract will fund the continuation of three separate surveys: The 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY79), which since 1979 has followed more than 12,000 people born between 1957 and 1964; the Children and Young Adults of the NLSY79, which represents about 11,000 children born to mothers in the NLSY79; and the NLSY97, which follows nearly 9,000 Americans who were ages 12 to 17 when they were first interviewed in 1997.

Ohio State’s CHRR designs the NLSY79 surveys, prepares all the data files and documentation, makes the data available to researchers via in-house software, and answers questions from users. The National Opinion Research Center in Chicago, a partner in the contract, designs the NLSY97 survey and collects the data in the field.

“In developing the NLS surveys, Randy Olsen and the research scientists at CHRR have provided a critical data resource that allows researchers and policymakers to investigate key economic and social issues facing this country,” said David Manderscheid, vice provost and executive dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “They are pioneers in cutting-edge survey methodology and policy-oriented research.”

The NLSY ’79 participants are currently being interviewed for the 26th time. The NLSY ’97 participants will be interviewed soon for the 19th time.

“We have followed the same people for many years and that really makes the NLS a unique dataset,” Cooksey said.

“We can see, for example, how a person’s experiences in childhood influence how they do as adults in terms of their relationships, their jobs, their health and many other factors. For many types of studies, these are the best data available.”

And the data are free.

“You only need to go online and you can download any of our publicly released variables,” Cooksey said.

Olsen said he sees the NLS providing a great resource as researchers and policymakers grapple with the aftereffects of the Great Recession of 2008.

“Of the people who lost their jobs during the Great Recession, how many of them will be able to get back into the labor force and how many will never work again? How many will end up earning less in their lifetimes?” Olsen asked.

“These are very important questions and the only way you can answer them is to track people over long periods of time – which is exactly what the NLS does.”

Olen said the original idea of NLS when it began in 1966 was to follow the participants for five years. But the payoff was so good in terms of the data provided that the federal government agreed to continue.

“The NLS has not only delivered on its original promise, it has over-delivered,” Olsen said. “It is a real success story.”