Raghunathan served on CDC National Center for Health Statistics Board
“Bringing the knowledge you have to help inform policy is what public science is all about.”
Trivellore Raghunathan, professor of biostatistics in U-M’s School of Public Health and director of the Survey Research Center, is a leading expert on data analysis and the design and analysis of surveys. He recently served on the Board of Scientific Counselors for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).
In this role, Raghunathan gave advice and guidance on major surveys, vital statistics programs, and gathering data from electronic health records. He also helped develop new approaches to monitoring and evaluating important public health and policy changes.
Raghunathan says the board’s mission was rewarding and a great fit for his skills: to collect the best possible data and present it without an agenda or policy statement. He says it’s up to the policymakers to use good information to make decisions.
Commenting on his biggest contributions to the board:
I gave a lot of input on the design and redesign of NCHS surveys. These surveys are used to measure long-term health trends, so when you change the design midstream it can create vastly different results. That’s why it has to be done carefully while also representing the population you’re trying to study. For example, a survey design that was used in the 1990s may be outdated because demographics have changed. So you redesign the sampling so you have an adequate representation of the current population.
You also have to be careful in how you describe data. The NCHS mission is to collect and disseminate information without an agenda so others can use it for policy analysis. But sometimes even a straightforward table can be misconstrued as having a policy implication. One time the board was reviewing a table of the proportion of people who didn’t have health insurance. Obviously the Affordable Care Act produced a drop in the proportion of people without health insurance. Our issue was to figure out how to report data in a way so that it didn’t make the agency seem as if it was making a policy statement.
Advice to peers considering this type of engagement:
I would say do it and enjoy it. For me it was a great position. You are able to work on important problems that have significant policy implications. The other rewarding experience is the interdisciplinary nature of the board. Colleagues in genetics, health behavior, and other areas get together and learn from each other. You teach a lot and learn a lot. NCHS is a wonderful agency to serve and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
The value of being publicly engaged — to himself, the university, and society:
Bringing the knowledge you have to help inform policy is what public science is all about. It’s a contribution to society in general, and the university should not be an ivory tower doing research that isn’t going to be useful. The social sciences especially have to migrate to the public. Meanwhile, public feedback helps us adjust our research agenda to be more relevant, so that interaction is very important.