Overview of the Committee on National Statistics
Mandate and Structure
The Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT) was established at the National Academies in 1972 at the recommendation of the President’s Commission on Federal Statistics, chaired by W. Allen Wallis. Its original mandate was to provide an independent, objective resource for evaluating and improving the work of the highly decentralized U.S. federal statistical system. While it still serves that mandate, it also has undertaken studies for a broad range of research and program agencies of the federal government. The Committee’s mission is to improve the statistical methods and information on which public policy decisions are based. It works to improve the data collection and estimation methods for a wide range of federal statistical activities, to further the application of statistics to better implement and evaluate federal programs, and to improve statistical methods for application to public affairs and to social, economic, and other scientific research.
CNSTAT is part of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education of the National Academies. CNSTAT is a standing unit that oversees and develops a portfolio of work related to its mission. In the Academies structure, there are about 50 standing units, many of which are termed “boards.” Among those currently in existence, CNSTAT is the eleventh oldest, the oldest being the Food and Nutrition Board, established in 1940.
The work of CNSTAT is guided by an interdisciplinary committee of about 15 experts in applied statistics, biostatistics, economics, demography, sociology, survey research, statistical agency management, and operations research (see Sections 2 and 4 of this booklet for lists of current and past members). The members are volunteers appointed by the president of the National Academy of Sciences, in the capacity of chair of the NRC; they serve staggered 3-year terms, with an opportunity for a second term.
CNSTAT meets as a board 3 times a year. Under the current arrangement, the fall and spring meetings include a public seminar and a lunch with the heads of major statistical agencies. The winter meeting includes only CNSTAT members and is held either in Washington, DC, or Irvine, California.
Panel Studies and Other Activities
The Committee carries out its mission by convening panels of volunteer experts to conduct studies on data and methods needed to improve understanding on topics related to the economy, public health, crime, education, immigration, poverty, welfare, terrorism, and other public policy issues. Each study involves a series of meetings, some public, in which the panel members gather information and deliberate. The panel produces a report that contains findings and recommendations for further action, usually directed toward specific government agencies.
To study some topics, the Committee organizes workshops, in which the invited participants are not only experts from academia and the private sector, but also relevant staff members of federal agencies. Workshops may be stand-alone projects or part of the information-gathering activities of a panel study. The Committee can also convene a standing committee to assist an agency to develop a specific program; such committees do not issue reports but provide valuable interchange and often spin-off workshops or consensus panel studies.
The Committee itself periodically publishes Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency (see p. 4). This “white paper” has proven useful and popular to federal statistical agencies in evaluating their operations and in making the case for the strong position of independence and credibility that makes the output of federal statistical agencies so valuable for the public good. A list of all current CNSTAT projects, by sponsor, can be found in Section 5, and a complete list of published CNSTAT reports is in Section 7. Additional information on CNSTAT projects and reports can be found on CNSTAT’s web site, http://sites.nationalacademies.org/ DBASSE/CNSTAT. CNSTAT reports (and other National Academies reports) are available as free PDF downloads at http://www.nap.edu, the web site of The National Academies Press; that site also offers purchase of hard-copy reports.
In addition to funding provided for specific studies, CNSTAT is fortunate to enjoy core support from a large group of statistical, policy, and research agencies. This support is critically important in enabling CNSTAT to address issues that cannot be resolved by one-time efforts, to conduct studies of interest to more than one agency, and to hold public seminars and other activities of the Committee. Panels and workshops are separately funded. Most agencies contribute core funding through a multi-year grant that is administered by the Methodology, Measurement, and Statistics Program of the National Science Foundation. CNSTAT’s current core contributors are listed in Section 6.