SciPol Scholars Residency: Researching the 2020 Census alongside the Union of Concerned Scientists

Coleman Harris is a data scientist interested in problems related to data quality and integrity while pursuing his PhD in Biostatistics at Vanderbilt University. He discusses his experience as a SciPol Scholars resident for the Union of Concerned Scientists. He has advocated for various issues leveraging his technical expertise, including climate change, facial recognition, and more


Headshot of Coleman Harris

As a PhD candidate in Biostatistics, after I completed the NSPN SciPol Scholars Bootcamp, I sought out a residency position that matched my interests in science policy and data quality. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) caught my attention the most when looking at the diverse residencies I could choose from. They pitched an idea centered on the delays to the 2020 Census, and how this would impact communities and political representation.

The goals were to advocate for fair usage of Census data in the redistricting process, bolster existing advocacy efforts, and encourage transparency throughout these complicated mappings of data to political representation.

To achieve those goals, we decided on a capstone report that broke down these delays, changes, and complications in the 2020 Census and discussed how that could impact data accuracy and redistricting based on the census data. This was followed by a sign-on letter, encouraging scientists and experts to join a call for fair representation and transparent redistricting, and culminated in a blog post that summarized the report while offering my personal perspectives on the problem at hand. Further, we utilized two separate webinars to promote the work – the first as a presentation for a Data & Justice session at the National Society of Black Engineers Professional Development Conference, and the second as a UCS webinar with multiple experts discussing the report itself and future work that is necessary to ensure fair representation.

Given my statistical and data-driven background, alongside my sharpened policy skills from the Bootcamp, my role across these advocacy efforts was as a researcher and topical expert. I was given much editorial freedom, hence much of the report was shaped by my own process. From this research perspective, I spoke with many different Census experts (from former Directors to community advocates) to diagnose what happened in the 2020 Census process, and how to mitigate those concerns going forward. 

I split this work into three distinct parts – what happened in the 2020 Census, how that impacts specific communities in both Ohio and Michigan, and what experts say the best practices are going forward. It was also my responsibility to break down these findings into different avenues, like the sign-on letter with a greater focus on advocacy or the webinar as a quick summary of “why” this work is important. These different exercises strengthened the research, each time sharpening the message as I communicated to another audience.

In my opinion, this entire project captured the main pillar of science policy – leaning heavily on scientific expertise and utilizing essential policy skills like networking, interviewing, public speaking, and writing to bridge the gap between technical experts and a target audience. The Bootcamp provided a good foundation of skills to quickly begin working with a new team towards a science policy research goal, and resulted in a set of quality resources for redistricting and census advocacy.

As I said in my blog post: “Censuses are Herculean efforts – as we leverage this technical expertise to navigate the 2020 results and better prepare us for 2030, I plan to continue using my experience to advocate for data quality as a vital tenet of the U.S. Census.”


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I want to say a huge thank you to Derrick Carter-House, William Ota, and the rest of the NSPN team behind the SciPol Scholars program for this opportunity, to Michael Latner, Danielle Fox, Melissa Varga, and the rest of the amazing team I worked with at UCS, and to the many experts who took time to discuss the 2020 Census with me. 




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