NSF SBE Advisory Committee Highlights National Secure Data Service, Directorate Updates

May 2021

The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Social, Behavioral, and Economic (SBE) Sciences Advisory Committee held its spring meeting on May 6–7. The meeting covered a range of topics, including an update on new funding opportunities from SBE; a conversation on broader impacts; and discussion on initiatives SBE is undertaking to address discrimination, bias, and equity.

The advisory committee heard from several experts on the development of the National Secure Data Service (NSDS) and its potential future home in the National Center for Science Engineering and Statistics (NCSES). The NSDS, recommended by the Commission on Evidence-based Policymaking (CEP) as part of using data for building evidence, would facilitate secure data linkages across federal agencies.

Nancy Potok, former chief statistician of the United States, provided an overview of the CEP’s work and the Foundations for Evidence-based Policymaking Act, which incorporated many of the CEP’s recommendations. She also described some of the key attributes of an NSDS, including transparency and trust, independence, and intergovernmental support. In considering the best place to house the NSDS, a recent report recommended establishing a Federally-Funded Research Data Center (FFRDC) at NCSES, to limit political interference and to support data enclaves and microdata. As a federal statistical agency, NCSES has the protections afforded to it under the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act.

AERA recently concurred with ongoing efforts to house the NSDS in a FFRDC at NCSES, including in comments in February to the Advisory Committee on Data for Evidence Building. In those comments, AERA Executive Director Felicce J. Levine wrote, “With the experience of NSF with FFRDCs and NSF’s role as an independent agency with the mission of the wellbeing of science, NCSES is well situated as a statistical agency to take on this responsibility.”

Amy O’Hara, Research Professor, Massive Data Institute, and Executive Director, Federal Statistical Research Data Center, McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University, detailed the assets and liabilities that federal agencies would have in implementing an NSDS. She also highlighted some considerations on the minds of federal agencies: tiered access, privacy tradeoffs, communications, and return on investments.

Vipin Arora, deputy director of NCSES, provided insight on the NSF role in developing an NSDS through partnerships and with the leadership of NCSES director Emilda Rivers on the Advisory Committee on Data for Evidence-Building. Daniel Goroff, director of the SBE Division of Social and Economic Sciences, explained some of the issues regarding differential privacy in facilitating data linkages.

The meeting also highlighted the investments that were made to inform the response to COVID-19 and future pandemics. These activities included the Societal Experts Action Network and a White House Office of Science and Technology Policy epidemiological summit held in November 2020, which emphasized the role of social and behavioral sciences in developing modeling strategies to prevent future pandemics. Findings from Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grants were also featured, including a study in progress in Connecticut that is using a remote reading program informed by research on reading acquisition for young learners to address potential impacts of lost in-person instructional time on reading skills for K–2 students.

The NSF Education and Human Resources Advisory Committee will take up similar issues on broadening participation and equity during its forthcoming meeting on May 26–27.