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RTI Stories

RTI Joins the Great Society

From Head Start to the Job Corps, the Institute applies its expertise in social science research

The 1960s were a period of social upheaval in the United States, which was naturally reflected in the work RTI took on for the government. In the wake of the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, a book documenting the detrimental effects of pesticides, the modern environmental movement was born. Public concern was also being raised about the country's underprivileged classes, and RTI heeded the call with its initial forays into quality-of-life research. As before, the Institute proactively hired staff to conduct research in these fields, with the expectation that, over time, clients would be cultivated, proposals would be formulated and accepted, and contract revenue would follow.

Following President Lyndon B. Johnson's declaration of the War on Poverty, RTI offered its resources in survey research and social sciences. Congress soon passed the Economic Opportunity Act, a law establishing the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), which administered federal funds to ease conditions of extreme poverty. The OEO funded a variety of Great Society programs, including Job Corps training for high school dropouts, Head Start for underprivileged preschoolers, and Upward Bound for disadvantaged high-school students–fertile ground for RTI to apply its expertise.

In 1965, RTI embarked on one of its biggest projects to date, in support of the North Carolina Fund–a project initiated by then-governor Terry Sanford that aimed to improve the economic well-being of low-income families in 11 North Carolina communities. To show just how intensive this work was, it entailed hour-long, 400-question interviews with 12,500 households across the state, conducted by 150 RTI researchers–at a time when computer-assisted data-gathering (and data-crunching) was still far in the future.

In the field of social research, during the 1960s, the local universities' close relationship with RTI was everything the founders of the Institute had hoped for. Researchers drew from university libraries and staff members enrolled in university courses and received faculty appointments to teach and supervise graduate study. They also coauthored countless papers and books with their university counterparts. "From the time of RTI's inception, it was recognized that the presence of the universities here in the Triangle area would be the institute's greatest asset," wrote Marcus E. Hobbs, a Duke chemistry professor who became chairman of RTI's executive committee in 1962. "[This] has been confirmed with each passing year."