Population Research Laboratory celebrates 50th year on campus

From studying Francophone communities to the effects of Alberta’s eugenics movement, the Population Research Laboratory (PRL) has seen plenty over the past 50 years.

The PRL, located in the Henry Marshall Tory building, provides expertise and instruction in social science research, specializing in computer-assisted telephone interviewing for clients in government, local communities and other faculties at the University of Alberta. With its establishment in 1966, the PRL paved the way as one of the first demographic research centres of its kind in Canada.

The lab collects data in health, education, labour markets, environment, science and technology, immigration, social policy and public opinion.

The PRL has been involved in notable studies such as Nancy Galambos and Harvey Krahn’s 25-year study which argued the midlife crisis was a myth. The study followed cohorts of high school students as they grew up.

Dave Odynak, research analyst at the PRL, assisted in a study on eugenics on behalf of the plaintiffs involved in the sterilization of individuals with undesirable traits defined by the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta. Researchers computerized archival data and the Alberta Eugenics Board’s records, and analyzed their findings electronically.

“We’re more than just data collectors,” Odynak said. “We’re really into the production of knowledge and transfer.”

When it opened, the PRL supported the sociology department, promoted demography for communities in Alberta and produced materials and research about Edmonton for the library of demographic trends, Odynak said. The lab then facilitated the first Alberta Survey in 1987, which still runs today.

Although the lab has been successful, it has a “liability of oldness,” Odynak said.

In the past 20 years, institutional support has been a challenge for the PRL. It runs almost entirely under the cost recovery model, with only one remaining funded position. The lab relies on contracts with grant-funded academics, Herbert Northcott, sociology professor and the PRL’s executive director, said. More time is now spent on cost recovery than pursuing the academic mission of the university, which involves training students and publishing research, he said. 

“It sets up a vicious cycle where we do less for the academic mission, and the university takes note of that and pulls more of our funding,” Northcott said. “We’re spiraling right now into that very difficult place.”

Throughout the past 50 years, the PRL has seen changes in research focuses, provincial growth and technological advances. Before computers, researchers would physically flip through the phonebook to call people. Data collection over the phone has become more difficult in the past few years because of the tendency to avoid telemarketers — response rates have declined from 70 to 20 per cent, he said.

“Telemarketers have really made it difficult for us to do our job well,” he said. “Now that people can screen calls, and now that they’ve been phoned every second day at supper time, they’re increasingly reluctant to answer calls from strangers like us.”

The cell phone carries hope, Northcott said. A recent PRL project using cell phone samples was successful, with more than 25 per cent of their respondents are cell phone users, Northcott said. Respondents included young people.

In an upcoming project, students primarily from Faculté Saint-Jean will research Francophone immigrants and conduct interviews in French.

Projects like this one allow students to become more involved by learning and practicing skills that might not be taught in a textbook or standard classroom setting, Odynak said.

“A number of our students who have worked with the lab have gone on to great positions in government and other universities,” Odynak said. “There’s a connection between practical applied stuff that you might learn here and going out into the community with what we do.”

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