for decisions: The Social Science Research Institute
Not all research involves beakers and Bunsen burners. In fact,
one of the University’s most respected units does the bulk
of its work with telephones and computers.
For nearly half a century, the UND Social Science Research Institute
(SSRI) has conducted social science research that has affected
policy decisions about some of the most important issues facing
It was born in 1954 when Dr. Peter Munch, chair of the UND Sociology
Department, acquired a grant from the Hill Foundation to study
the impact of oil exploration on Williston, N.D. As the SSRI’s
first director, the Norwegian sociologist was committed to the
application of theoretically directed research to current problems.
Fifty years later, SSRI is still gathering, analyzing and reporting
information that is widely used by policy makers in North Dakota
and beyond. Pick a public issue facing the state – from
economic development to health care – and you'll find SSRI-generated
information informing state leaders and the public.
"Our job is to help leaders make informed decisions for
their organizations based on the factual, reliable data that we
gather," said Cordell Fontaine, SSRI director.
Take Job Service North Dakota, for example. It asked SSRI to
conduct several studies of labor markets across the state. Several
of the reports are available at www.jobsnd.com. SSRI found that
many communities have a labor market that is capable of further
That was good and useful news for many, said Nelse Grundvig,
Job Service North Dakota research analyst.
"The Institute was able to gather data in a timely fashion
that enabled us to respond to the needs of local and state officials,"
Grundvig said. "In several instances prospective employers
and economic developers were able to use the data gathered, as
well as the reports developed, to help make informed decisions
on whether a specific location in the state was an appropriate
location. The fact that SSRI holds itself to high standards of
professionalism helps ensure that everyone involved is confident
that the research was done in an unbiased fashion."
The information was important to state leaders, Grundvig said.
"The Labor Market Information Center has used the information
gathered by SSRI to help policy makers better understand the issue
of unemployment in North Dakota."
And it helped community leaders, too, Fontaine said. "We've
been able to give local communities and regions reliable, valid
information that they have the labor market to compete –
a labor market that is highly educated, highly motivated. They
can turn around and use that knowledge to market themselves to
recruit a new business or expand an existing one."
A recent study for the North Dakota Information Technology Department
demonstrated that 70 percent of North Dakota businesses use modern
technologies, very much in keeping with the rest of the nation,
said Fontaine. Again, the information is helping the North Dakota
Department of Commerce market the state as a good fit for new
or expanding businesses.
The research process involved isn't rocket science, but it is
"The key to doing good research is to follow proven research
methodology and not deviate from that,” Fontaine said. “It
is based on good rigors and knowing the research protocol of what
you're trying to do," he said.
SSRI follows standard social science methodology involving proven
information gathering and analyzing techniques. There are several
ways to survey a target audience, and each methodology has its
pros and cons, said Fontaine. Sometimes a mailed-out survey is
the best approach. Sometimes a face-to-face focus group works
"Our forte is telephone research," Fontaine said. He
directs up to 100 callers trained in gathering information through
telephone surveys. They work out of various stations in UND’s
Technology has helped streamline the process. In the past, SSRI
researchers would have had to go to printed telephone directories
to create their call lists. Now automated lists and computer programs
create the lists. Each caller uses dialing software designed to
target a desired population, determined by the needs of the survey.
"The key is, whatever population you are going to survey,
everyone has to have a known probability to be surveyed,"
Fontaine said. "When we call, the first thing we do is identify
who we are, and we let them know we reached their number through
a random system."
There are standard processes in place throughout each project,
he said. The survey questions are designed to explore the issue
or question asked by the client and to gather accurate information.
That means designing questions that don't bias the respondent
ahead of time. SSRI follows standard practices in developing and
testing the survey instruments to ensure the questions are as
objective as possible. The organization's reputation is unimpeachable
in this area. Media and policy leaders put immediate faith in
the results of each survey, regardless of whether or not the findings
support their particular perspectives.
After the information is gathered, it is analyzed. It isn't enough
just to report the raw data. SSRI generates a report that helps
the client understand what the data mean and generally provides
recommendations based on the results of the analysis.
The client list is varied, but SSRI essentially serves three
major groups: UND and UND faculty, state organizations and agencies,
and non-profit or not-for-profit organizations such as United
"The Social Science Research Institute fits a small-market
niche," Fontaine said. "We have worked with a lot of
small agencies and businesses that can't afford a high-priced
But it also has been sought out by larger organizations.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, based in Miami, Fla.,
and one of the largest of its kind, has contracted with SSRI to
assess the results of its five-year grant program to support community
development in Grand Forks. Organizations such as Knight are reluctant
to invest dollars without a valid determination that dividends
are being yielded.
"We thought the survey was very well done, very timely,
and very helpful," said Mike Maidenberg, publisher of the
Grand Forks Herald and a Knight Foundation board member. “We
got a lot of good advice from Cordell on how to craft the questions
to get at the information we were seeking, and we also got good
advice on how to present the findings. Overall, we were quite
pleased with the SSRI. We are going to repeat the survey in a
couple of years.”
Some recent SSRI studies
- Worksite Assessment of Smoke-free Polices, conducted for the
Bismarck and Burleigh County Public Health Departments.
- Marshall and Pennington Counties Secondhand Smoking Study,
conducted for the Medical/Educational Environmental Tobacco
Task Force, supported through a grant from the Minnesota Partnership
for Action Against Tobacco.
- North Dakota Labor Availability and Underemployment Studies,
conducted for the Workforce Development Division of the North
Dakota Department of Commerce.
- North Dakota Internet and E-Services Study, conducted for
the North Dakota Information Technology Department.
- Grand Forks Citizen Survey, conducted for the City of Grand
Forks Mayor's Office and the Pubic Information Center.
- Greater Grand Forks Metropolitan Area Comprehensive Community
Needs Assessment, conducted for the United Way of Grand Forks,
East Grand Forks and Area.
- Gambling and Problem Gambling in North Dakota: A Replication
Study, conducted for the Office of the Governor of North Dakota
and the North Dakota Indian Gaming Association.