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Center for Pandemic Research

The Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy (ISERP) announces the launch of a Center for Pandemic Research to coordinate new work by Columbia social scientists on COVID-19. This is in line with ISERP’s "start-up center" program -- i.e. not something permanent, but a structure to facilitate fast, flexible, interdisciplinary initiatives.

The Center will oversee several new initiatives:

  • A week-long online course: “Leadership and Decision-Making during Pandemics.” Led by two of Columbia’s leading experts, Wilmot James and Lawrence Stanberry, the program featured distinguished local and national leaders from around the world. It took place June 8-12, 2020, and is intended to pilot ISERP’s new executive education program.
  • A new round of pandemic-related seed grant funding, which we are issuing jointly with the Columbia Population Research Center. The ISERP Executive Committee has already funded several projects on Covid-19, some of them described below. ISERP will issue its usual calls for applications for projects in the Fall and Spring, but this separate process is intended to support pandemic-related research quickly while preserving funds for non-Covid-19 projects.
  • Student Summer Research Grants: Call for Student Applications for Pandemic Research, Summer 2020. ISERP will fund small grants for undergraduate and graduate student research on Covid-19 related faculty research projects. 
  • A virtual symposium, "Meeting the Challenge of COVID-19 in Africa," hosted jointly with the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, which addresses unique and key challenges of dealing with a delayed but explosive unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic in parts of Africa and to identify best practice solutions. The symposium will take place Sept. 1-4, 2020.
  • A further round of seed grant funding on the topic of Countering Vaccine Hesitancy and Scientific Misinformation.  This call solicits innovative social science proposals on how to counter vaccine misinformation and enhance trust, and has a priority deadline of Sept. 15, 2020.

The Center will have an executive committee made up of the following faculty:

  • Matthew Connelly, Professor of History, Chair. 
  • Douglas Almond, Professor of Economics and International and Public Affairs
  • Jennifer Hirsh, Professor of Sociomedical Sciences and Director, Doctoral Program, Department of Sociomedical Sciences
  • Yao Lu, Associate Professor of Sociology
  • Suresh Naidu, Professor of Economics and International and Public Affairs
  • Elizabeth Povinelli, Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology & Gender Studies
  • Robert Shapiro, Wallace S. Sayre Professor of Government and Professor of International and Public Affairs

These four ISERP projects are already underway:

  • The COVID-19 Pandemic and Anti-Chinese Sentiment on Social Media

Douglas Almond and Shuang Zhang

Since the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan in January, incidents of anti-Chinese racism around the world have been widely reported.  This project seeks to analyze patterns of anti-Chinese sentiment on social media. We plan to focus on publicly-available Twitter posts for the US and identify factors which shape the anti-Chinese response to COVID-19:

How does the pattern of anti-Chinese tweets change before and after the first outbreak in Wuhan and the subsequent outbreak in the US?

How does the pattern of anti-Chinese tweets change before and after President Trump's statement about the “Chinese virus" on March 18th? 

Are regional differences in anti-Chinese tweets across US counties correlated with the economic impacts of the US-China trade war?  Or other factors?

We aim to develop a more systematic understanding of the anti-Chinese response and its heterogeneity using “big data”.  Shedding light on these potential drivers will inform public policies that might help reduce racial bias.


  • Pandemic Reporting

Matthew Connelly, Sheila Coronel, Jennifer Hirsch, Wilmot James, and Derek Kravitz

Covid-19 has put in stark relief many of the problems of doing journalism and social science research at the intersection of science, medicine, and public policy. Columbia epidemiologists, virologists, public interest journalists, and computational social scientists are working together to develop a new model. Experts will help journalists identify the most significant new studies and target their FOIA requests. Journalists will share their research, such as FOIA'ed documents, and work with computational social scientists to turn these documents into data. With advanced search and discovery tools, this growing corpus would not only support more in-depth research on breaking stories, but also longer-form journalism. In time, as more of the historical record is finally released, it would become a community archive of the Covid-19 pandemic, so that social scientists could also begin to mine the data, and scholars and journalists could narrate this history.


  • Model Minority No More? Changing Perceptions and the Social and Economic Impact of Rising Anti-Asian Racism Fueled by COVID-19

Yao Lu and Neeraj Kaushal

Despite growing news reports on anti-Asian racism, particularly toward Chinese Americans, after the outbreak of COVID-19, our present understanding of the rising prejudice and discrimination against Asians is mostly based on anecdotes. We will systematically investigate the extent to which COVID-19 has exacerbated anti-Asian racism and if such intensified discrimination has permeated to the socioeconomic arena to affect the labor market outcomes and social experiences of Asian Americans. We will conduct two rounds of online experiments and audit studies to examine the overall impacts of COVID-triggered discrimination, as well as the extent to which these effects differ across areas characterized by different COVID-related public health and economic shocks, political environment, and ethnic diversity.


  • Labor Lab

Suresh Naidu, Adam Reich, and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez

Prior to COVID-19, service-sector workers suffered from poor working conditions and little voice in the workplace or the political arena. The pandemic has made conditions worse for these workers in many ways, but has also recast many as "essential" in the eyes of the public.  Moreover, despite widespread unemployment, we see a surprising level of interest in workplace collective action among these workers.  Our project seeks to understand whether and how the shock of the pandemic might generate collective action to rebuild the economic and political power of the service-sector. Working directly with unions and worker associations, we use state-of-the-art research methods to study what workers want from labor organizations and the effects of new forms of collective action in the workplace, labor market, and politics.


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