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RTI Stories

RTI Develops its Core Competencies

The virtue (and necessity) of diversifying into separate research groups

The 1970s witnessed RTI's deepening involvement in quality-of-life research. As in the previous decade, when poverty and drug abuse were high on the agenda, events affecting American citizens drove much of this work. For example, when worsening air pollution stirred national outrage, the government contracted RTI to measure gases and particulates in automobile exhaust, examine the costs of controlling air pollution, and estimate the spending necessary for compliance with new legislation.

To provide the strongest possible base for future growth, and to foster more interdisciplinary research, RTI president George R. Herbert reorganized the Institute's staff of 430 employees in 1971, creating four distinct research groups: social and economic systems, statistical sciences, environmental sciences and engineering, and chemistry and life sciences. Each group’s vice president was accountable for research performance, program development, and staffing.

After this reorganization, RTI's core competencies came into sharper focus, helping to generate more business. For example, in 1971, the Institute created the Center for Education Research and Evaluation, comprising statisticians, social psychologists, and other education specialists. That same year, the National Center for Education Statistics contracted with RTI to design the National Longitudinal Study (NLS), which evaluated 23,000 sample members of the high-school class of 1972 from more than 1,300 schools nationwide.

The NLS study sought to determine how an individual's secondary education influences subsequent decisions, such as whether or not to go to college and what courses to take. Seventy-four percent of former high school seniors obtained some form of postsecondary education, including 23 percent who received college degrees. Few respondents claimed to have experienced sex discrimination during high school, although many African-American and Hispanic students said race discrimination had affected their education. These findings, and others like them, helped guide federal, state, and local policies involving the transition of young people from school to adult life.

A valuable side effect of the NLS project was that it deepened RTI's capabilities in longitudinal surveys, inspiring the development of sophisticated telephone tracing operations to track highly mobile sample groups, as well as new techniques to improve survey response rates (including the use of small cash incentives to encourage people to return mailed questionnaires). Most profoundly, the project fueled the development of computer programs facilitating data entry and analysis, capabilities that RTI deployed in subsequent survey projects.