BU Sociology Chair 'The Man With The Badge' At The U.S. Census Bureau

July 16, 2002

He has a security clearance, uses passwords and a building access code and is unable to reveal much about his work, but Baylor sociology and anthropology chair Charles Tolbert is not moonlighting as a spy for the CIA.

Dr. Tolbert goes through this kind of security process because he is one of a few academics who regularly travels to the U.S. Census Bureau in Washington, D.C., to view confidential research data from the economic and population censuses that will never be made public. This is work that can only be done at the bureau or at one of five regional data centers, none of which is located anywhere near Texas.

"There are about 50 people who have the clearance to conduct research at the census bureau," Dr. Tolbert said. "Some of these are from governmental agencies such as the Federal Reserve and the Justice Department, and some are academics from places like Johns Hopkins, UCLA, Penn and other Ivy League schools."

Tolbert became interested in data analysis using census tools while an undergraduate at Baylor. During his faculty days at Florida State University and Louisiana State University, he performed research using publicly available census data, often for government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior. It was that research that brought him to the attention of the Census Bureau.

"I struck up an acquaintance with Alfred R. Nucci, who is at the bureau, who had heard one of my paper presentations," Dr. Tolbert said. "He told me that I was doing really interesting things with the publicly available data, and that I could really push the envelope with some of the stuff they have behind the scenes."

Dr. Tolbert learned that receiving a research seat at the census bureau is a multi-step task.

First, his proposal was peer reviewed and he received funding for the research from various agencies such as the National Science Foundation. Then he wrote a similar proposal to the census bureau that basically said he had money for his research and would like to buy access.

"It took a year and a half for everything to fall into place," he said. "I actually started going to the bureau in 1998 and my work is funded through 2004. But I have other proposals out there that could add some years to my research."

After his proposal was accepted, Dr. Tolbert underwent an extensive background check, was fingerprinted, sworn in and issued a badge, which he must wear at all times on the premises.

"The badge is literally the key to the facility, and in the not so distant future, the badge will be the only way you can turn on your workstation," he said.

Other security measures the bureau employs are removing floppy drives from all terminals, forbidding cell phones that are email capable and personal digital assistants from the facilities and monitoring and carefully controlling every record of data that is accessed. Researchers caught browsing the data are subject to a $250,000 fine and a five-year jail term.

"When you leave for the day, you must lock up all your data in your cubicle. Nothing can leave the building, and you are subject to search," Dr. Tolbert said. "When you are finally ready to publish any of your findings, the bureau performs a disclosure analysis on the paper to ensure that the results will not enable persons or establishments to be identified. The bureau is very serious about the anonymity of the respondents."

Dr. Tolbert thinks he might have more projects under way than any other academic with similar access. In fact, he finds himself in the middle of what may prove to be the most controversial aspect of Census 2000 -- why the 2000 population census is showing a higher number of foreign born respondents than the other recent census tools, such as the Current Population Surveys.

"Nobody is sure why this is happening," Dr. Tolbert said. "It could be that the population census question is not as intimidating in some way (as the Current Population Survey question) to foreign born respondents, or it could be that the bureau's efforts at communication were much more successful than in the past, and that their efforts to involve leaders in racial and ethnic communities were extraordinarily successful. But we need to find out why."

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