Some people hesitate to answer surveys due to privacy concerns. However, such concerns are usually unfounded for the type of academic surveys funded or conducted by NSF and other federal agencies, which carefully protect the identities of respondents. Typically, government organizations require review of plans for how data are collected, and review boards consider any privacy issues. Survey takers must obtain permission from interviewees to use the data; usually, attribution of the data is prohibited (that is, the interviewees are not identified in any survey report and they have numbers rather than names in the survey database).
Your opinion matters. Next time you are asked to take a survey, think twice before dismissing it—but take note of who is asking, and why.
When done correctly, surveys replace assumptions with scientific data. They help us to “see” what is otherwise invisible. They help us to understand ourselves and our society.
Human behaviors and opinions are some of the most important yet ill-understood areas of scientific inquiry—with implications for nearly all areas of science. Surveys attempt to measure both data and trends in this area.
A Scientific Instrument
Surveys are the scientific instrument of the social and behavioral sciences. Astronomers have their telescopes. Physicists have their accelerators. And social and behavioral scientists have their databases, many of them derived from surveys.
Surveys collect information about people by asking them a structured set of questions and recording the answers. Because they reveal trends and patterns over time, the stored results of the surveys give scientists a record that grows more valuable with each addition—unlike physical facilities, which depreciate in value and need to be replaced.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) conducts or supports surveys that document people’s demographic information, income, attitudes, voting behavior, and feelings. Major survey activities supported include the General Social Survey, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, and the American National Election Studies. Other NSF surveys are the principal source of information about the science and engineering enterprise in the United States.
By Elizabeth L. Malone