President Obama has tapped John H. Thompson, the head of a private-sector research group with ties to the University of Chicago, to lead the U.S. Census Bureau, which has operated without a permanent director for about nine months.

Thompson, 61, who was nominated Thursday, has served as president and chief executive of the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) since 2008. He also held positions with the Census Bureau between 1987 and 2002, according to a biography provided by the White House.

The Census Project, a group that represents census stakeholders, encouraged the Senate to quickly confirm the president’s nominee “so that the bureau can continue serious planning for Census 2020.”

If confirmed, Thompson would head an agency trying to save money and adapt to the digital era. In preparation for the 2020 Census, the bureau is testing online-response models, expanding the use of administrative records to improve data collection and updating its procedures for creating a master address file.

The cost of the census has grown exponentially in the past two decades, rising from $39 a household in 1990 to $70 in 2000 and $96 in 2010.

“Everybody is faced with issues of doing more with less and doing it faster,” Thompson said in an interview Friday. “The environment we’re in right now is changing dynamically, and there are a lot of exciting things going on. We just have to make sure we take advantage of that.”

Thomas L. Mesenbourg has served as interim director since August. In a statement Friday, Mesenbourg applauded Obama’s selection of Thompson. “John’s long and distinguished career at the Census Bureau and his recent experience leading one of the private sector’s most prestigious survey organizations makes him uniquely qualified to lead the Census Bureau,” Mesenbourg said.

Thompson has worked as an executive for NORC since 2002, when he became executive vice president. He has served as NORC’s president and CEO since 2008. Thompson holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics from Virginia Tech.At the Census Bureau, Thompson held several management positions, including associate director for the 2000 Census and chief of the decennial management division.

Julia Lane, who worked with Thompson during his management tenure, said he was an advocate for innovation and was effective at communicating with Congress.

“He can figure out what’s important and not important, and then explain why anyone should care,” Lane said. “That’s why he’s so effective with Congress.”

She credited Thompson with being one of the foremost proponents of a program that combined federal and state administrative data on employers and employees with core Census Bureau surveys. She called it a “transformational project” that helped policymakers better understand why jobs go where they go.

“With every agency, if you don’t have a champion who gets it and figures out strategically how to make it happen, it doesn’t happen,” Lane said. “He helped make it happen.”