April 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 4

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ASA Council Supports
Independence of Federal
Statistical and Research Agencies

by Lee Herring, ASA Public Affairs and Public Information Office

At its February 2009 meeting, ASA Council considered a long-brewing concern that has been affecting the credibility of specific federal statistical and research agencies in recent years. This latest story begins with the criminology research community in November 2008. Through an open letter from Jeremy Travis, the President of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, to the American Society of Criminology (ASC), Travis urged the ASC to examine "the federal role in promoting research on crime, society’s responses to crime, and the administration of justice." Travis issued the request at that time because of the "unprecedented opportunity" presented by the election of a new U.S. Congress and President, he wrote.

Travis also executed a far-reaching appeal to the broader research community, including sociology, through professional associations’ leadership and members. As a former director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) National Institute of Justice from 1994-2000, the nation’s primary source of extramural research funding on crime and justice, Travis brought unique insights about the value of federal criminal justice research and statistical enterprises in relation to the efficiency and function of the organizational structure in which they operate within DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs.

In particular, the research community long has entertained the notion that a new organizational structure is needed. In early 2009, the Law and Society Association (LSA) supported Travis’ request "to restructure the National Institute of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Statistics to create a scientific branch of government that operates under scientific principles comparable to such agencies as the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health." According to LSA Executive Officer, Ron Pipkin, the LSA plans now to work cooperatively in designing a final recommendation to Congress and the White House. The goal is to establish a new Office of Justice Research and Statistics, headed by an Assistant Attorney General who has a background and expertise suitable for running a statistics and research agency, bringing this domain of federal research on a par with the quality exhibited in federal research on drug abuse, education, and health and disease.

Officers of ASA’s Section on Crime and Deviance approached the ASA leadership in December 2008 with a request for endorsement of the proposed new structure. The Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) urged support of the initiative in a meeting with President Barack Obama’s transition team for the DOJ. COSSA maintained that "an office will give higher status and greater visibility to justice research and place the justice research agenda on sounder footing . . . ," according to Sally Simpson, Chair of the ASA section. The ASC also submitted a detailed memo to the transition team, expressing the need for an organizational structure that supports rigor and robust research on crime and justice policies. As interest builds for this initiative, the ASA Council at its February 17, 2009, meeting approved the supportive formal statement below.

ASA Council Statement on Federal Statistical
and Research Agencies

The Council of the American Sociological Association (ASA) unanimously affirms its long-standing commitment to the independence, transparency and scientific leadership of federal agencies that conduct and support research and collect statistical data that are vital to the well-being of American society. The range, rigor and openness of research and statistics on the nation’s many social institutions, processes and problems are enhanced by federal research and statistical agencies that are characterized by independence and transparency and led by persons with relevant scientific expertise who are appointed to fixed terms of office.

As a scientific society, the ASA carefully monitors the performance of federal research and statistical agencies that are essential to the conduct of high quality social science research. The ASA also monitors the development of proposals about the structure and operation of these agencies that may impact the extent to which the principles Council has affirmed (i.e., independence, transparency and scientific leadership) are institutionalized.

The ASA Council endorses the goals of recent proposals regarding the future of the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Institute of Justice, both agencies within the U.S. Department of Justice that are important national scientific investments. One proposal endorsed by the Executive Board of the American Society of Criminology, the Consortium of Social Science Associations, and similar organizations calls for moving these statistical and research agencies into a new independent office within the Justice Department.

The Council of the American Sociological Association encourages Congress to evaluate these proposals in terms of their impact on the independence, transparency and scientific leadership of these important federal science and statistical agencies. logo_small


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