Our History and Future

For more than eight decades, NORC at the University of Chicago has delivered reliable data and rigorous analysis to guide critical decisions on some of the most important issues society has faced. 

In 2016, NORC at the University of Chicago celebrated its 75th year as a leading research institution. Since its founding in 1941, NORC has become a pivotal organization for national and global exploration and reflection. Working closely with our partners and clients, NORC has shaped the questions, gathered and analyzed the data, and derived the insights that have allowed governments, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and citizens around the world to make more in-formed public and personal decisions about issues ranging from health care and education to economic development and the workforce. In the process, NORC has also been one of the leading innovators in research methodology and the adoption of new technologies that have helped shape the field of modern research and set the standard for rigorous, culturally sensitive, trans-parent, and unbiased inquiry into the most pressing issues facing society.

Over the years and continuing today, NORC researchers have used proven methods and emerging techniques to illuminate topics across the spectrum of human and social experience. We have explored the structural and personal factors that contribute to overall health and well-being over the entire life course. We have examined what it means to learn, how we best learn at different stages of development, and how our education and the systems that provide it contribute to positive and negative outcomes. Our studies have charted the nature of employment and work and created deep knowledge about the state of the national economy and our relationship with money and income. We have helped governments both domestically and around the world design, implement, and evaluate programs to improve the human condition. And we have looked into the heart of the American psyche to understand our sometimes conflicting views as we mutually shape the future of the country. The amazing breadth of what NORC has studied over 75 years is tied together in its entirety by the shared importance of the topics to our collective well-being.

The heart of NORC’s work lies in revealing the attitudes, opinions, and behaviors that shape the way different populations across the United States and around the globe make decisions while at the same time investigating the social, economic, educational, and health factors that influence the trajectories of their lives. Each new study adds to NORC’s subject matter expertise—encompassing areas ranging from race relations to sexual behavior to crisis response. And each new innovation—from conducting extensive research into how survey participants interpret questions and formulate answers to using the latest sensor technology to corroborate self-reported data to unlocking the knowledge hidden within big data—enhances the quality of the data NORC is able to harvest and the insights that can be derived from that data.

Fundamentally, the history of NORC is a story marked by innovation. Our collaborations with other research centers and organizations helped establish the modern foundation of social science research. Our advancements in survey design methodologies have allowed researchers to ask increasingly nuanced questions of ever more diverse audiences. And the novel-yet-pragmatic ways in which we have invented, adopted, and adapted technology have made data collection, analysis, and dissemination more rigorous, more cost-efficient, more accessible, and more secure.

The subject matter NORC has explored, the diverse and often hard-to-reach national and international audiences it has surveyed, and the perpetual innovation in survey methodology and use of technology are extraordinary—as is the unsurpassed depth, quality, and transparency of the data NORC has gathered. But our clients come to us not just for information and insights but for evidence-based strategic counsel and technical support to inform governance and actions in the world around us. We have evaluated the effectiveness of their programs and policies, advised them on program design and policy development, and even helped them implement programs. In the process, we have enabled them to pursue their missions backed by real-world evidence and to do so with greater effectiveness and cost-efficiency.

NORC now looks to the future in a context of accelerating change within the industry, growing amounts and types of data, dramatic shifts in technology, a dynamic population, and a growing and diversifying set of players in the research and data industries. Within this environment, NORC must chart a course of evolutionary yet bold changes that will build upon and expand its traditional strengths to ensure a future of increased relevance, deeper impact, and long-term sustainability.

Evolution means creating and honing new scientifically rigorous, transparent, and cost-effective ways to understand citizens through web-based data collection as NORC is doing with its AmeriSpeak platform—the first to combine the speed and efficiencies of web surveys with the accuracy and sound science typical of more traditional approaches like in-person and telephone interviewing. It means developing methods and tools that allow for researchers around the world to collaborate and learn from highly sensitive data in a secure environment, which is made possible by the revolutionary NORC Data Enclave. And, it means embracing the changing nature of how data are created, and investing in researchers and technologies at the forefront of understanding social media. And these only scratch the surface. Ultimately, NORC’s vigorous and deliberate evolution is rooted in its very nature: a passionate and unapologetic culture of learning, testing, and adaptation and a fascination for understanding what comes next.

But while much in our field and within the organization itself will continue to change, our core principles will remain the same:

  • an unswerving commitment to the highest standards of scientific and academic inquiry, including the transparency of both methods and outcomes those standards demand
  • a relentless drive to innovate, to bring to bear the most effective uses of the latest technological tools, and to be a learning organization that constantly strives to advance the theory and practice of research
  • a belief in the value of collaboration and collegiality, because the best solutions to the most daunting (and exciting) challenges are found when researchers, data scientists, technologists, and policymakers bring the best of themselves to the table and work together toward a common goal

We live in an increasingly data-saturated world, one that is daunting to understand and one that is prompting profound and necessary questions about how data can be properly created, gathered, mined, understood, and trusted. Governments, businesses, academics, and the general public are turning to NORC to answer these questions and address their most critical challenges. NORC’s core principles—and the hard-gained wisdom of the past—will continue to guide us as we pursue our mission to provide insight for informed decisions.

Commemorative History
75 Years of Insight, Innovation, and Impact

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75th Anniversary Book