The University Record, November 16, 1992

Survey Research Center keeps tabs on pulse of the nation

By Rebecca A. Doyle

Telephone lines were unusually busy the past few weeks as pollsters called the American public to find out how they would vote in the presidential election.

Now that the final tallies are in and Bill Clinton is preparing to take office, things are settling back to normal.

But at the Institute for Social Research’s Survey Research Center (SRC), the polling continues—not to find America’s political preference, but to gather data about such things as health insurance coverage in small businesses, women’s health and income dynamics.

Data compiled by the SRC is used to project trends in these and many other areas.

Richard T. Curtin, SRC associate research scientist, for instance, studies consumer attitudes. Data from his study is used by the Department of Commerce as a leading economic indicator.

SRC’s newly expanded facility allows as many as 10,000 interview hours per month, increasing the volume of data collection possible. Interview carrels are equipped with computers that can automatically select and dial either random numbers or those stored in a database, says Lesli J. Scott, who manages the telephone interview facility. Interviewers can enter responses directly into a data repository for later collation. The interview staff has grown to more than 100, and there are three times the number of interview carrels that there were in the old facility, says Scott.

Requests for SRC studies come from everywhere, says Director Robert L. Santos. Many originate inside the SRC and the institute, but many also come from the University research community, from corporations and from all levels of government.

“We respond to a wide range of clients,” Santos says, “although our principal function is to meet the needs of the center and institute researchers. We also have a history of serving the School of Public Health, the School of Natural Resources and Environment, and the Department of Sociology.”

Researchers who request a survey sit down with someone from the center to plan the entire process, Santos says.

“We work out the details that span the entire survey process, and a plan to work with them,” Santos says. Telephone surveys can last from one month to more than a year, he says, depending on the complexity of the survey, the sample size and interviewing.

“We jointly develop the survey design with the researcher to best meet the needs of the survey relative to the budgeted amount.” Researchers choose from lists of “sampling frames” and determine whether the survey should be national or local, how many responses should be included and any specifics about the population selected.

“Most of our calls take place from 6 to 9 p.m.,” Santos says. “But due to time zone differences, we can call some places as late as midnight.” SRC also conducts some telephone surveys during the day, he says, when they do business surveys or contact those whose profiles show they are likely to be available.

Telephone interviewers generally are received well, says Scott, but sometimes interviewees are not sure whether they want to be included.

Scott says it is important to be able to let people know that their names are never used and that the data collected is compiled without revealing identification. A confidentiality form is signed by everyone who enters the facility while interviewing may be taking place.

“We take confidentiality of the response data very seriously,” Santos agrees. “To our knowledge, that pledge has never been violated.”

Most interviewees are willing to participate, and responses are generally easily elicited.

The largest problem, Scott says, is not people who are offended by the survey or the telephone call.

It is people who, because of the wide use of the telephone as a marketing tool, believe that somebody is trying to sell them something, and hang up.