The History of the OSU Political Research Lab

The History of the Political Research Lab

The Political Research Lab has been in existence for over 40 years. It was officially established as “Polimetrics” during the 1969-70 academic year under the leadership of Political Science Department Chairman Randall Ripley (1969-91) and the first Polimetrics Director C. Richard Hofstetter.

The first incarnation of the Lab was actually initiated by Political Science Department Chairman Lawrence Herson (1962-69) as the “Numerical Computation Laboratory.” Those were the days of computer cards, so the original Lab equipment obtained by Prof. Herson’s 1963 NSF grant consisted of a keypunch machine, a counter sorter, and a Monroe/Marchant electric calculator.

The Lab developed a polling section, starting when it conducted interviews on the OSU Oval during the campus riots of spring 1970 (Burgess & Hofstetter, “The ‘Student Movement’: Ideology and Reality,” Midwest Journal of Political Science, v. 15 (4), 1971, pp. 687-702). Polimetrics began with a data processing section (staffed by Jim Ludwig), the data archive, a computation section, and a programmer. A simulation section was added a few years later. The OSU Poll of faculty, staff, and students was begun by the Lab in the early 1970s.

The Lab has seen a succession of directors, with Stu Thorson taking over as head in 1976, followed by Kristi Andersen in 1981. The longest consecutive service was by Aage Clausen, from 1984 through 1993, who was responsible for such key developments as hiring Kathleen Carr as an experienced survey research professional to run our survey operation, moving to Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing, setting up the Political Analysis Lab (PAL), and establishing LabNotes for communication with department faculty, staff, and graduate students. Since then, Herb Weisberg (1993-1999), Tom Nelson (1999-2002), Rich Timpone, Herb Weisberg again (2002-2005), Marcus Kurtz (2005-10), and Jan Box-Steffensmeier (2010-11) served as Lab Directors.

Graduate students who worked in the Lab have moved on to a variety of teaching and research positions, including several in the polling industry. For example, early lab alums who have become prominent in this field include Marty Saperstein and David Krakoff in Columbus, Susan Howell at New Orleans, Cliff Zukin at Rutgers, Steve Yarnell in Florida, and Mark Teare and Dee Allsop in Washington, D.C.

The Lab has benefited immensely from highly talented professional staff, including our long-time computer wizard Jim Ludwig, Kathleen Carr as head of the survey unit, and, more recently, James Norman, Bill Miller, Josh Morris, and Isaac How at the computer end. Old timers will remember when Elsbeth Connaughton, Karen Baker, and Jodi Hertvik Renshaw served as Lab office managers. More recently, Greg Strizek, Michael Young, Doug Perkins, Kevin Sweeney, Greg Miller, Jeff Martinson, Nathan Toronto, and Tom Dolan served as lab Assistant Directors, managing day-to-day operations.

Lab facilities have changed dramatically over the years. Polimetrics began when the department was still in the original University Hall, and then moved to the first floor of Derby Hall in the 1970s. We were in temporary space in the bleak surroundings of Neil Hall when Derby was being renovated in 1991-1993. With the reopening of Derby in 1993, we have our modern 2nd floor facility, plus responsibility for the electronic classroom in the basement of Derby.

The Lab has seen vast changes in technology. By the 1970s, using the computer meant using Lab terminals to the mainframe computer on the 5th floor of Baker Systems Engineering, where people went to pick up their printouts. Data were originally on punched cards, which eventually were phased out in favor of data stored on computer tapes at the Computer Center — data that Jim Ludwig subsequently burned on CD-ROMs. Computers came into the political science department in 1984, when Prof. Phil Stewart bought a NESTAR computer network, one of the very first computer networks on campus.

There have been several important recent transitions in the Lab. Tom Nelson started up the experimental lab, with the lab taking over the responsibility for the department’s human subjects pool. The survey unit was spun off to become the basis of the University’s Center for Survey Research in 1996, after which Polimetrics was renamed as the Political Research Lab. The Lab has become responsible for designing and maintaining the Department’s Web pages. When it became possible to access data directly from the Web, the Lab went out of the data archive business. Finally, in 2003 Jan Box-Steffensmeier started up the PRISM program as a means of revitalizing the lab’s emphasis on methods training.

While the Lab has seen many changes over the years, its missions remain constant: a mission of training students, a mission of research, and a mission of service to the department. We expect to continue working on these missions over the coming years.