Cornell Bowers College of Computing and Information Science
photo of marty wells


Stats Prof Marty Wells New Faculty Director of Survey Research Inst.

By Louis DiPietro

On the edges of the Cornell campus, in a nondescript brick building, a team of researchers and programmers are in relentless pursuit of reliable data, one survey and one phone call at a time.

Celebrating its 20th year, Cornell’s Survey Research Institute (SRI) continues to further its mission of collecting quality data for research projects at the state, national and global levels.

“We live in a world full of data, and there’s knowledge to be discovered in data, but how reliable was the data collection?” said Martin Wells, newly appointed SRI faculty director and Cornell statistics professor in the ILR School and Computing and Information Science (CIS). “The goal at SRI is to do high-quality, state-of-the-art research.”

Lost in the catch-all meaning of the word “research” is person-to-person work involving focus groups, phone calls, and mail and Web surveys, often involving thousands of participants and spanning several years. Governments, academic institutions, medical schools, nonprofits and private-sectors companies typically lack the time and resources to carry out independent surveys on their own, and that’s where Cornell’s own survey service steps in.

For 20 years, SRI has done the heavy lifting on more than 1,700 research projects, leading major state and national studies on subjects as varied as risk behavior among New York City youth and the prevalence of elder abuse in New York state, to the effects of retirement on drinking behavior. Just recently, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees charged SRI with analyzing refugee data in Jordan.

“We really help people complete complicated data projects,” SRI Director Sherry Xian said. “Very few can do what we do.”

SRI started in 1996 with three computerized calling stations and an idea. In three years, SRI had grown to include six full-time and 60 part-time staffers and 22 calling stations. Today, SRI leads roughly 100 surveys per year, of which about 70 percent are for Cornell-related research projects, Xian said. The other 30 percent are external clients, including other universities, which hired SRI to lead their faculty surveys, she said.

“We design sophisticated scanning, phone or Web applications and implement everything based on the research goal and target group,” SRI Web manager Yasir Parvez said. “We’re experts in design service, and we really check data carefully so it’s clean and of high quality.”

The result?

“Our response rate is higher – about 10 to 30 percent higher than a market survey company,” he said.

SRI’s meticulous quest for good data is reflected in the depth and scope of some current projects. One involved a periodic survey of 2,500 college graduate students from four universities over five years about the effect drinking has on gaining employment.

“This is impossible for an individual researcher to conduct such a complex data collection on their own,” Wells said. “It’s just too intricate.”

 “Survey research remains an important component of social science,” said ILR School professor Samuel Bacharach. “Cornell has long been part of this tradition. For the last two decades, my research group at the Smithers Institute have had millions of dollars in research funding (mostly NIH), much of which was made possible because of our collaboration with SRI.”

SRI also takes the lead on two major public opinion polls annually, the Cornell National Social Survey and the Empire State Poll.

Looking ahead, SRI’s new leadership has made outreach and collaboration with the Cornell research community a key priority.

“It’s a new role that offers vision, collection and analysis of big data and seeking out collaborative projects at Weill, the Tech Campus and elsewhere on campus,” Wells said. “The goal is to extend SRI’s reach at both Ithaca and in New York City and to help researchers become even more excellent.

He cited the University Course Taking America’s Pulse: Creating and Conducting a National Opinion Poll, where students work with SRI to learn telephone polling and interviewing techniques.