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NSF Witholding Some Data on Ethnic Minority Doctorates

From Inside Higher Ed we learn that National Science
Foundation has stopped reporting data on numbers of minorities earning
doctorates in some scientific specialties, if those numbers fall below a certain
threshold. The Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), an annual
survey of doctoral awardees conducted for NSF and five other federal agencies by
the National Opinion
Research Center, no longer reports data for table cells where the reporting of
small numbers in those cells may divulge personal or confidential

According to the most recent (2006) report (PDF),
this non-reporting of data removes much of the data on Native American
participation in the sciences. Likewise, data for African-Americans in several
disciplines …

Earth, atmospheric, & marine sciences
– Physics & astronomy
– Aerospace/aeronautical engineering
– Industrial engineering
are gone as well. See the screen shot below; cells with "D" have the withheld data.


[Click on thumbnail for full-sized image.]

Inside Higher Ed quotes an e-mail from Jaqui C.
Falkenheim, NSF’s project manager who attributed the decision to a review by
NSF’s Division of Science Resources Statistics (SRS) that publishes this and
other workforce statistical reports. She said, "The findings of that review
revealed the need, given more restrictive rules/guidelines and heightened
concerns about confidentiality/privacy, to tighten SRS procedures for releasing
SED data to the public." Falkenheim adds that protection of confidentiality
helps keep response rates high and protects "the reputation of NSF as a research
partner with academe".

How large does the cell size need to be to allow
release of data? According to Falkenheim and Inside Higher Ed, that’s
confidential as well.

Users of these data are both disappointed and
mystified. "This hides information. It removes information," said Andreen
Neukranz-Butler, human rights compliance officer for the University of Idaho.
She also noted that even with small cell sizes, no names or institutions are
revealed, thus the concerns about confidentiality don’t add up.

One of the commenters on the InsideHigherEd site, a
researcher at University of California-Berkeley remarked, "This latest move is
utterly pointless, indeed counter productive. It seems yet another move intended
to obscure the very slow growth of Ph.D. acquisition by ethnic

Science Careers asked Falkenheim to comment further;
we will update this post with NSF’s response.

Hat tip: Donna Scheidt, University of Michigan