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National Science Foundation Award Paves Way for UT Center for Pandemic Decision Science

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AUSTIN, Texas — The National Science Foundation has selected The University of Texas at Austin for a pilot grant to establish the UT Center for Pandemic Decision Science (CPDS). The new interdisciplinary center will bring together scientists, engineers, clinicians and policymakers to tackle the grand challenge of preparing the world to combat future pandemic threats.

“This represents an ambitious next step for the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, a professor of integrative biology and statistics and data sciences who is directing the effort. “Over the last three years, the consortium has been a leading force in pandemic forecasting to help individuals, schools, communities and global leaders navigate the changing risks of the virus.”

The new center will tackle three fundamental challenges that plagued the global response to COVID-19 and are critical to the future resilience of our planet:

  • Anticipating novel pathogen threats and detecting them at their source.
  • Forecasting and positively influencing individual, collective and governmental responses to pathogen threats.
  • Integrating science into every stage of pandemic decision-making, including prevention, detection, containment and mitigation.

“COVID-19 revealed a fundamental failure of imagination,” Meyers said. “Leading into 2020, we assumed that the next pandemic would resemble those we have seen in the past. But COVID-19 was different. The international playbook did not include face masks, mass testing or stay-at-home orders. It did not plan for misinformation campaigns, devastating racial disparities, years of lost education or breakneck viral evolution.”

There are more than 40 multidisciplinary investigators from 11 institutions collaborating to establish the new CPDS. During the next 18 months, the center will host five workshops and conduct five pilot projects, including a hackathon to forecast human health behaviors and a pathogen “wargame” exercise for Texas public agencies.

These activities are designed to “build a road map for closing fundamental gaps in our understanding of pandemics,” Meyers said. The new center will also provide educational and research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students at UT.

UT Austin is the coordinating institution for the $1 million PIPP Phase I grant. Joining Meyers in project leadership from UT are Radu Marculescu, professor of electrical and computer engineering, Risto Miikkulainen, professor of computer science, and Claus Wilke, department chair of integrative biology. External project leaders are Dr. Mark Escott, City of Austin chief medical officer; David Morton, department chair of industrial engineering and management sciences at Northwestern University who was formerly with UT; Akihiro Nishi, assistant professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health; and Holly Wichman, director for the Institute for Modeling Collaboration and Innovation at the University of Idaho. CPDS will also collaborate closely with the Santa Fe Institute and the Center for Advanced Pathogen Threat and Response Simulation.