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Atkinson COVID-19 grants could inform policy decisions

The Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability has announced its first two Rapid Response Fund grants since calling for emergency proposals in early April. The faculty research grants are aimed at helping find solutions to issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The funded research projects could yield new tools and reports that may help policymakers make better decisions – during pandemics or other health crises.

One project aims to produce a mathematical model that allows government officials to manage human mobility during a pandemic. It will be led by Samitha Samaranayake, assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering.

The other will examine real-time consumer surveys on economic expectations during COVID-19 social distancing, which could lead to more efficient reopening of regional economies. It will be led by Lars Vilhuber, executive director of the Labor Dynamics Institute at the ILR School.

“The response to our special research call has indicated a desire by Cornell faculty to help contribute solutions to the current public health and economic crisis,” said David Lodge, the Francis J. DiSalvo Director of Cornell Atkinson. “Our hope is that early support from our Rapid Response Fund can lead to immediate analysis and insight that helps to build interdisciplinary research in the area of One Health and pay dividends for future public health planning and response.”

The pandemic has raised questions about the links between mobility and infectious disease transmission, said Samaranayake, who has expertise in modeling and transportation networks.

Samaranayake will partner with Benedetto Piccoli, professor of mathematics and vice chancellor for research at Rutgers University - Camden; and Daniel Work, associate professor of engineering and computer science at Vanderbilt University.

“We are trying to develop new epidemiological models that explicitly account for how people move around at a local scale,” Samaranayake said, suggesting that such models can support disease containment and mitigation, and back economic recovery measures that minimize travel disruption while limiting disease spread.

“The primary benefit to society is the development of improved models and tools for municipal and state officials, to better grasp the spread of infectious disease by incorporating travel dynamics into epidemiological models,” Samaranayake said.

For detail, go to Samaranayake's model website.

Vilhuber’s research will include weekly rapid-response surveys in the U.S. and Canada to capture critical indicators of consumer behavior in response to social distancing.

“Current surveys capture the change in business and consumer behavior only at monthly or quarterly frequencies – and rarely with geographic detail,” said Vilhuber, who is partnering with Fabian Lange, professor of labor and economics at McGill University, Montreal.

Vilhuber and Lange will capture and examine metrics involving consumer uncertainty and expectation related to social distancing and the closure of nonessential businesses, as actual policy responses to the crisis evolve. They will collect responses weekly through the middle of summer, expecting to draw real-time inferences about consumers’ and business’s states of mind.

Cornell Atkinson Rapid Response Fund proposals are being accepted through June 30.

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