Myron Gutmann

by Susan Rosegrant
March 2009

Imagine this scenario: A woman, Jane Q. Public, pulls up to her daughter’s high school in the family minivan to give her a ride home. Just months earlier, she had given her daughter permission to participate in a national survey that included questions about sexual practices, drug and alcohol use, and social contacts—to wit, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Suddenly, a local TV reporter approaches. “Mrs. P.,” he calls out, thrusting a microphone in her direction. “Survey results show that drug use and sexual activity are up in the region. We also understand from a close look at the results that your daughter has been sniffing glue and behaving badly with the boy next door. Would you care to comment?”

Farfetched? Maybe. But what if a diligent reporter—aided by information pulled from public sources, the daughter’s Facebook profile, and her best friend’s tell-all blog—was able to pin down identifiable details in the survey data? As advances in technology steadily increase the ability to search, cross reference, and manipulate data, the scenario isn’t as ludicrous as it might have seemed even a few years ago. Indeed, protecting the confidentiality of research subjects has become a new preoccupation of survey designers and data archivists, and one of a short list of major issues on the mind of Myron Gutmann, director of the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Science Research (ICPSR) at the Institute for Social Research (ISR) at Michigan.

Given the data revolution of the last two decades, the job of presiding over the once-staid consortium, which collects, curates, preserves, and disseminates social science research findings, now requires taking on a brave new world of technological change, unparalleled potential, and significant ethical peril—all of which makes it a good fit for the versatile and entrepreneurial Gutmann.

Since taking the position in 2001—alongside appointments in Michigan’s History Department, the School of Information, and ISR’s Population Studies Center—Gutmann has overseen a vast treasure trove of social science research. The consortium has been acquiring a broad range of social science studies since 1962. Of the 6,000-plus studies now in the collection, some are purely historical. But ICPSR also handles the distribution of many of the nation’s most prominent ongoing studies in political science, sociology, economics, psychology, and education. Some 650 institutions are ICPSR members, and the institute has a partial bibliography online of more than 45,000 articles that cite its data. “It’s critically important that researchers have the opportunity to access reliable data for their research, and that they not be forced to always go out and collect data on their own,” Gutmann says. “We stand as one of the places—we think the best and largest place in the U.S.—where researchers can come to find data that they can use to find answers to important social questions.”

It takes a certain kind of person to oversee such an operation—someone enthusiastic about data and smart about technology, on the one hand, and comfortable with a range of academic disciplines, on the other. Peers call Gutmann eclectic, with a mind that glides effortlessly from one topic to another. Gutmann puts it this way: “I’m a data guy. What made me good for this job was partially that I had a lot of interdisciplinary interests so that if you sit me in a room and start talking about a problem in a new area, I’m okay at figuring out what you’re talking about.”

Gutmann, with his thin-rimmed glasses, salt-and-pepper beard, and rapid-fire delivery, grew up in a suburb of Chicago, where his family ran an old-fashioned dime store and an importing business. His father was an immigrant from Holocaust-era Germany who found his way to the United States around 1940; neither parent had the opportunity to go to college. “We were not the most sophisticated family in the world,” Gutmann says, “but there was certainly a sense of the world that was not constrained by American boundaries”—an attitude that Gutmann was to carry into his chosen field.

Gutmann fell in love with history as an undergraduate at Columbia, and pursued his Ph.D. at Princeton, where he did joint studies in history and demography. At the time, U.S. history struck him as too narrowly focused on minutia—”the history of each presidential sneeze,” Gutmann says. Instead, he focused on Western Europe, where historians were studying “big picture, long, broad questions about how human experience developed,” he recalls. But later, as an associate professor at the University of Texas, Gutmann developed a micro history course that caused him to look at the United States with a fresh eye. “I discovered two things that were interesting which an American historian would have known from the beginning,” he recalls. “If you looked at how populations in the West settled and how they behaved, the important variables were race and ethnicity and the environment.” No one was seriously studying these broad questions in the American West, though, Gutmann says, and he jumped at the opportunity.

Gutmann, who describes himself as a “wildly interdisciplinary historian,” went on to launch a number of research projects in the West, all looking at some aspect of how historical and contemporary populations interact with their social, political, economic, and health environments. Chief among these is the Great Plains Research Project, a wide-ranging, multi-year effort to study the long-term history of population and environment interactions in the Great Plains. To carry out the unusually multidisciplinary research, Gutmann recruited ecologists, demographers, historians, sociologists, geographers, and anthropologists from several universities. “Today the things we’re working on most are how people choose to use agricultural land and what are the things that shape that,” he explains. “Is it a function of the land, is it a function of economic choices, is it a function of the characteristics of their families?”

According to Glenn Deane, associate professor at the University at Albany (SUNY) and a long-time Great Plains collaborator, Gutmann’s ability to work with people across traditionally balkanized disciplines stands out. “Every time we have a project meeting, it’s such an eclectic and unusual collection,” Deane says. “He’s the point person who talks to all of us, and allows us all to talk to each other. That’s really who he is and why he’s so special.” William Parton, another collaborator and a senior research scientist at Colorado State’s Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, agrees. “In interdisciplinary research, some of it is personalities,” Parton says. “He can promote really good research in all his people, and then everybody shares in the benefits.”

In 1998, Gutmann was named director of the Population Research Center at Texas. Deane says it was almost unheard of for a population center director to come from a field other than sociology, and he attributes the honor to the breadth of Gutmann’s intellectual interests. “He’s regarded in several different fields as a major figure,” Deane says, “certainly in quantitative history, but also in European history and in demography itself.”

But the ICPSR director must also rustle up funding, launch research projects, and win prize studies for the collection. In other words, ICPSR not only needs a respected scholar—it needs a bit of a cowboy. And, in fact, gracing the walls of Gutmann’s Ann Arbor office are three vintage photos of cowboys caught in fluid motion—a reminder of his 25 years in Texas. The photos came with him when Gutmann moved to ICPSR in 2001. Although they look slightly out of place in Ann Arbor, they are also oddly apt: Gutmann came to the job as a prolific fundraiser; he ranks among the top few historians in the nation at bringing in grants and contracts. “A big part of my job is figuring out ways to raise money, and being adventuresome and entrepreneurial about it,” he says. ICPSR research, while modest compared to the institute’s core activities of archiving and training (ICPSR runs the Summer Program in Quantitative Methods of Social Research), is growing steadily in such areas as digital preservation, digital curation, and protection of confidentiality.

At the same time, under Gutmann’s leadership, ICPSR has become far more aggressive about rounding up data. To stay on top of what’s available, ICPSR keeps a wish list: an ongoing database of every data-collecting social science project funded by NSF or NIH since the 1970s. “We go through that list over and over again,” Gutmann says. “We write to people and we call them and say, ‘Wouldn’t you like to give us these data?’” Is there a crown jewel Gutmann is eager to acquire? The director demurs. “All my children are wonderful,” he deadpans, “so I don’t have a top of the list that I’m negotiating for.”

Meanwhile, Gutmann and ICPSR keep working to make the institute’s current data more accessible and accessible in new ways. Just ten years ago, ICPSR studies weren’t available online. Now the institute has a sophisticated web-based delivery system. Even the bibliography of citations is online, and researchers can go back and forth among data and articles written about the data. The next step, Gutmann says, is to let people search by variable. For example, a researcher could request all studies that include questions about whether respondents are Democrats or Republicans. And researchers should be able easily to merge data from different archives, a process that—even when possible—is highly cumbersome today. “I’m in favor of permeable boundaries, because permeable boundaries allow us to reflect what people are really doing in their academic lives,” Gutmann says.

As boundaries become more permeable, though, and as computing capacity increases the ability to compare data, the risks of confidentiality breaches also increase, bringing us back to the horrified mother in the minivan. Gutmann doesn’t really anticipate that particular scenario. And there aren’t yet any reliable stories of such an abuse occurring involving research data. At least, “no one who knows will admit anything,” he says, “including me.” When policymakers discuss the potential for breaches, Gutmann says, they often worry about insurance companies ferreting out hidden health information, or about someone checking on their soon-to-be ex-spouse’s assets. At the moment, he says, the more likely scenario is that a hacker would engage in “random malicious behavior” by pulling data from two or more studies and coming up with an identifiable person.

Still, the risks are real and may increase over time, which motivates ICPSR’s ongoing research about how best to preserve confidentiality in data that are shared among researchers. Gutmann advocates that ICPSR, other archives, and survey designers work preemptively and cooperatively to seek out better ways to obscure personal data and protect confidentiality. Because if a reporter ever did show up in a schoolyard with survey information linked to an identified participant, it could create a panic, causing people to avoid research projects altogether. Even a single major breach “would have the potential to really harm the research process,” Gutmann says. And that would be a blow not only to ICPSR but to all social science research and to data gathering everywhere.

For Gutmann, that is a serious concern, but one balanced by the dramatically expanding opportunities in social science research. ICPSR is thinking about extending the very nature of the data it collects, he says. For instance, a number of social science surveys now collect biomarker data—such as cheek swabs or blood samples. ICPSR doesn’t have freezers for physical samples, Gutmann says, and does not want to move in that direction. But one creative alternative might be to create digital representations of blood draws or other specimens. The institute is also debating whether to include studies that operate in entirely new terrain, such as research that looks at social networks by using cell phone records, multi-player online games, or other kinds of transactional data. “We’re just beginning to think about what to do with those data,” he says. “That’s a very exciting world ahead.” And one that can use a good data guy.