Wendy joined the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at NIH in 1973 after receiving a Ph.D. in sociology and demography from the University of Kentucky. She served as Chief of NICHD’s Demographic and Behavioral Sciences Branch from 1979 to 1991, and as Deputy Director from 1991 to 1994. During her tenure at NICHD, she was instrumental in the launch of the NLSY79 Child cohort.
After leaving NICHD in 1994, Wendy served as Deputy Director for Extramural Research at NIH, Executive Vice President for Research at the University of Kentucky, Vice President at the Population Council in New York, and President and CEO of the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, DC. She “retired” in 2014 but remains active in the population research community.
Here are Wendy’s reflections on how the NLSY79 Child cohort came to be, and why its success relied on the three Cs: convincing, cooperating, and collaborating.
When I went to the NIH, I was motivated to increase our understanding of the interrelationship of women’s employment and fertility behavior. Despite being drawn into work on adolescent fertility, my interest in the employment/fertility relationship remained. This was a challenging time for such work because the demographic research community had different sources of data that provided tantalizing but somewhat disconnected parts of the puzzle. On the one hand were surveys like the National Survey of Family Growth that was rich with fertility and family measures … but contained little about employment. On the other hand, the NLSY79 was rich with employment data, but had virtually no fertility information.
It seemed that the NLSY79 could be an unparalleled resource if we could graft onto it appropriate measures of fertility behavior. While researchers affiliated with the NLS – Bob Michael and Frank Mott in particular – were keen to do this, the Bureau of Labor Statistics was a bit reluctant. Would adding a whole new dimension to the survey dilute its main focus? Would questions about fertility be viewed as sensitive by the respondents and lower response rates? Experience with other fertility-oriented surveys was used to allay those concerns, the NLSY79 team was relentless and persuasive, and the BLS eventually came on board. Of course, there was the issue of funding, but the case for the value of the enhanced data was so persuasive that the day was won and it was a great win for science and for the interests of the NIH and the BLS as well as Ohio State and NORC.
Well, what happened? One of the great data sources was born and the sky did not fall … nor did response rates. In fact, some respondents found the new (fertility-related) line of inquiry more engaging than the relentless focus on employment. Of course, some cases were lost, so Frank and Bob visited me. They had an idea: why not make a video of reasons to participate, and mail it to those respondents who appeared to have dropped out? This led to interviews with principal investigators, members of Congress, me, and others, to make the case in plain language (not the language of researchers) about the value of the study and their importance to it. Sometimes you hear from respondents that they are too busy, or that researchers could talk to other people, not them. It is not easy to explain that they have been scientifically chosen and that their views matter. There is an ongoing need to help respondents understand why their voice is important. This was done without any attention to whether the respondents had a tape player. The reasoning was that once the video arrived in the mail, people would find a way to play. Go to a friend’s house? Drop by a store and pop in the tape? The hope was that it would be sufficiently intriguing that people would find a way to watch it and that it would motivate them to continue to participate. The tape did convert some non-responders and I think it exemplified the creative approaches that I came to expect from Ohio State and NORC.
Each cycle, we struggled with the challenge of finding the funding for the next wave and ensuring that BLS did not feel that our participation eroded the basic goals of their study. Each year the process became easier as the quality of the data was realized and the enthusiasm of the research community grew as people recognized the usefulness of the Child survey to address policy-relevant questions. There is always the challenge with a longitudinal study that funding will fade over time, but the value of the data kept that support high – if not as high as we might have wanted.
But, there were other challenges facing the research community. This was a time of growing interest in a specific aspect of the interrelationship of work and family: how did it affect the children? Let me draw a somewhat simplified picture of the scientific community. On the one hand, population researchers had great samples, understood the importance of representative samples, saw the relationship of work and family, but generally had very weak measures of child wellbeing. Birth weight and age-for-grade are important, but a very thin picture of how children are developing. On the other hand, the child development community had outstanding measures of child development, but studies were largely based on small, non-representative samples and the breadth of social, economic and racial/ethnic characteristics was not available. And so, I got another visit from Bob and Frank.
Now their idea was really audacious! Wouldn’t it be great to have direct measures of the growth and development of children of (female) NLSY79 respondents? Sure, that sounded fantastic, but for that to work there had to be agreement within the child development community of the optimal measures and they had to be ones that could be administered by survey interviewers. (Cue the music “Two different worlds, we live in two different worlds.”) I do not think anyone had faced a challenge like that. Well, the child development community came together and parsed the available measures and learned about the realities of large scale survey research! A measure that required too much training or where the tools (which would be needed by each interviewer) were too expensive could not be used. Amazingly, these rather disparate fields came together, we pulled together the funding and the field work went forward. For a survey with a nationally representative sample to go from asking about employment of the parents to measuring language skills of the children was unprecedented.
In my opinion, a key benefit to this project was that it brought the demographic and child development communities together. Research relationships were forged, and research was launched on how social, economic and family factors work together to influence the development of children. Each discipline needed the other to fully exploit the value of the NLSY79 Child data, and it led to outstanding research and longstanding partnerships. At a time when many were extolling the benefits of interdisciplinary research, the NLSY79 Child cohort showed how to make it happen: give people a tool that is so compelling that they seek out the collaborations in order to do the best science. I view my time working with Bob and Frank and all the others involved in this as one of the most rewarding ever.
… to the individuals at the U.S. Department of Labor, the Center for Human Resource Research at Ohio State University, NORC at the University of Chicago, and the U.S. Census Bureau who teamed together to conduct the NLS for 50 years. Without the hard work and dedication of these individuals, there would be no NLS!
If you are current or former member of the NLS team and would like to add your “staff” profile to this website, please contact NLSat50@chrr.osu.edu and we will send you a link to the profile submission page.