Time-Sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences

Under IPR leadership, new NSF grant supports social science innovation

Freese and Druckman

For the past decade, researchers have had access to a powerful and innovative way of collecting randomized, representative data for free—thanks to the online data collection platform TESS, or Time-Sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences. With a grant for renewed support from nine different divisions of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and now under the leadership of two IPR fellows, TESS will continue to offer its free online survey services, as well as aiming to increase the numbers of the nation’s emerging scholars who use it.

“Our goal is to be a lean, mean experimental-data-collection machine that encourages scholars to generate innovative research designs, test hypotheses quickly on appropriate samples, and subsequently return to the field with the next research question,” said IPR sociologist Jeremy Freese, who has co-led TESS since 2008. We want to democratize access to high-quality, original experimental data.” This fall, Freese welcomed IPR political scientist James Druckman as co-principal investigator.

Launched in 2001, TESS offers researchers opportunities to test their experimental ideas on large, diverse, randomly selected subject populations. Faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers submit their proposals for peer review, and if accepted, TESS then fields the Internet-based survey or experiment on a random sample of the U.S. population at no cost. Researchers then get access to the data to themselves for one year, at which point it enters the public domain for all to access.

One recent cutting-edge project was a special call for proposals to test social and biobehavioral hypotheses about terrorism and extremist violence. Fielded experiments included studies on measuring public reaction to a smallpox vaccination program, determining how conspiracy theory beliefs are generated, and examining political grievances and sympathy for terrorist movements. The competition received funding from the Human Factors and Behavioral Sciences Division in the Department of Homeland Security.

TESS is especially vital for younger, tenure-track scholars, enabling them to conduct cutting-edge research on very limited budgets. This is why Freese and Druckman are launching a new initiative to expand who has access to TESS.

“Investigators can always co-fund a study with us if they have other funding sources. But graduate students rarely have such funds, and postdocs and assistant professors often have very limited research funding,” Druckman said. “We want to give younger scholars the possibility to run more ambitious survey experiments.”

To do so, they will begin offering an annual Young Investigators Proposal Competition, open only to graduate students or individuals who completed their PhD within the past three years. Freese and Druckman are also hoping to support shorter studies, aiming to field 25 to 35 brief proposals over the next three years in TESS’ Short Studies Program.

As one example of how TESS has helped younger scholars, IPR political scientist Laurel Harbridge, an assistant professor, ran a project on TESS in 2011-12 to examine how Americans view bipartisanship with Neil Malhotra of Stanford and Northwestern graduate student Brian Harrison, a former IPR graduate research assistant.

Harbridge lauded TESS for its high-quality samples and feedback on proposals. She also applauded it for giving junior scholars the opportunity to run studies through firms like Knowledge Networks—studies they could likely not afford to run otherwise. It also demolishes potential roadblocks such as having to figure out both computer programming of experiments and sample recruitment on their own.

“With TESS, our time was spent on theory building, research design, and analysis—the factors that impact our careers the most,” Harbridge said.

Jeremy Freese is professor and chair of the department of sociology and an IPR fellow. James Druckman is Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science, Associate Director of IPR, and Chair of IPR's Research Program on Politics, Institutions, and Public Policy. Laurel Harbridge is assistant professor of political science and an IPR fellow.