Changing Work, Constant Purpose: Center for Survey Research Marks 50 Years
UMass Boston’s Center for Survey Research has spent half a century tracking people’s opinion on some of the commonwealth’s biggest challenges and informing policymakers on what they can do to solve them. Most recently, the center captured the quickly evolving public opinions of the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines, presenting nuanced findings to help public officials work to stem the spread of the disease.
Brought to a young UMass Boston campus in 1971 by then-president of the University of Massachusetts Robert Wood, who served as its director prior to it coming to UMass Boston from Harvard and MIT, the center has spent the past five decades measuring public opinion and attitudes toward some of the region’s biggest issues, including housing, healthcare, and the environment.
“What the Center for Survey Research does for the research community is meant to be helpful to agencies, state organizations, and any organization that collects data,” said Floyd “Jack” Fowler, Jr., a senior research fellow at the center. “We also do a lot of collaborative work with faculty at UMass and around New England, and that’s what we’ve been doing for 50 years, in all kinds of different ways.”
Fowler knows the center’s work better than most – he co-founded it in 1971, when the university was in Boston’s Park Square, prior to moving to a new campus on Columbia Point in 1974.
“Things have evolved over 50 years, as you might imagine,” Fowler said with a slight chuckle. “Back in 1971, most of our interviewing was actually done in person or in households. We did a lot more interviewing on telephones, and had a very large telephone staff. Interviewing has declined recently, and much more of it is done by mail and on the internet.”
“The [kind of] research is the same, the methods have changed,” agreed Lee Hargraves, the interim director of CRS. “A lot of the work that we do is talking to people in small groups about their experiences, writing test questions, and doing 1-on-1 interviews.”
When it comes to the nature of the work, the center has spent the entirety of the past five decades focusing on work for public or nonprofit organizations.
“We don’t do things that are not in the public domain. All of our work and research is published. What the work is about is trying to educate people and learn things,” said Fowler.
“Eighty percent of the projects that we do are with people who are collecting data because they want to be more informed about some issue having to do with making the world a better place.”
The center’s achievement was also recognized by the broader UMass Boston community.
“To have served the public interest of Boston, the state of Massachusetts, and New England for 50 years is an exceptional milestone and exemplifies the ethos of what it means to be a part of the UMass Boston community,” said Chancellor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco. “Dr. Fowler, Dr. Hargraves, and the center’s entire staff should be tremendously proud of their work, carrying the baton of knowledge and service into a new era.”
At any point in time Fowler, Hargraves, and their colleagues at CRS have 15 to 30 ongoing projects that are in one phase or another. Among those on the center’s plate right now are a healthcare study being done in partnership with Yale University that is capturing the attitudes of people who have remote visits with their healthcare provider, and another being done in collaboration with the Department of Housing and Community Development, surveying attitudes of people in public housing.
One of the higher-profile studies that the center has done in the past year was on COVID-19. The research, titled Living in Boston During COVID and done in partnership with the Boston Area Research Initiative at Northeastern and the Boston Public Health Commission, surveyed 1,626 Bostonians during the first months of the pandemic and recorded their attitudes toward public health measures like masking and social distancing, the economic and personal impacts of the pandemic, and plans for getting vaccinated, among other things.
According to the center, at the time it was published it was the only survey in the world to capture disparities in the experiences of, attitudes toward, and impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic across the neighborhoods of a city, providing a unique insight into racial and social inequities. One of the biggest takeaways from the report was its confirmation that the pandemic’s effects were radically different for residents depending on the color of their skin, their neighborhood, and their income level.
The center’s work on COVID-19 is reflective of its broader commitment to serving the public, the very reason it was moved to UMass Boston 50 years ago, and the reasoning that continues to drive its work today.
“UMass Boston’s mission of public service and applied research made it a logical home,” said Fowler, speaking about the original decision to move CRS to the commonwealth’s only public urban research University.
“Being in Boston is also a good thing because there’s a rich academic environment here,” he said. “We work with Mass General, we work with Children’s Hospital, we work with people at Boston University and Northeastern - there’s a whole network of academic and intellectual interests here that make it a nice place to be.”