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The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has received approval from the U.S. Census Bureau to house a research data center (RDC) on campus. The center will be a branch of Atlanta’s Federal Statistical Research Data Center (FSRDC), which is a partnership between the Census Bureau and a consortium that includes UT and nine other institutions across the southeast.

Located within partner institutions, RDCs are secure Census Bureau facilities where qualified researchers working on approved projects can access restricted-use data from various federal and state agencies. The centers have the computing capacity and software to handle large data sets and complex calculations, and researchers can collaborate with each other throughout the nation via the secure RDC computing environment. To protect census respondent confidentiality, the facilities must meet strict physical and information security requirements. Researchers also must undergo training to obtain Special Sworn Status from the Census Bureau.

There are currently about 30 FSRDCs nationwide. Applications for new RDC branches go through an extensive review and approval process with the Census Bureau. Marianne Wanamaker, associate professor of economics in the Haslam College of Business, along with professor of sociology Stephanie Bohon and associate professor of geography Nicholas Nagle, authored and submitted a proposal for the UT branch in 2019. The authors were notified in May 2020 that the application had been approved.

The UT branch proposal ranked first among the at-large applicants, Wanamaker said.

Calling an RDC branch “critical infrastructure” for UT’s future endeavors in the social and behavioral sciences, the proposal pointed out that the university‚Äôs success and investment in quantitative research, along with its partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, have been attracting a steady flow of new faculty, many of whom have RDC experience. In addition, faculty members collaborating on RDC-based projects often need to rely on co-authors at other institutions to perform such work because of the distance between Knoxville and Atlanta. Compared to other institutions, UT’s distance to its physical RDC facility is among the farthest in the nation, making travel to the center time consuming for faculty and cost prohibitive for many graduate students.

“As a result of our specialties, and despite our distance to the Atlanta facility, faculty at the University of Tennessee have been intensive users of the Atlanta Research Data Center,” the authors noted.

Having an RDC branch on campus will be a boon to researchers like Kelly Hewett, associate professor of marketing in the Haslam College of Business. After an approval process that took several years, the Census Bureau recently granted Hewett and her co-researchers access to a proprietary data set containing all product-level export transactions from the U.S. over a period of more than 20 years. Because of the rare access, Hewett believes the project has potential for major academic journal publications.

“Given the strict requirements for data analysis once access is granted, such that all data analysis must occur at a center, I planned to spend weeks at a time working in the Research Triangle center at Duke University because of its proximity to my coauthors,” Hewett said. “Having the ability to access and analyze data at UT will make the entire process more efficient.”

Many details remain to be worked out, including an exact location on campus, Wanamaker said. “An optimistic timeline,” she said, “would have a facility open on campus by mid-2022.”

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, all RDCs nationwide remain temporarily closed. The Census Bureau is granting remote access for some researchers.



Stacy Estep (