NSF News

Infusing human behavior into epidemiological models is focus of new NSF-supported research projects

The U.S. National Science Foundation is investing more than $7.5 million in new research focused on empowering more reliable prediction of the spread of infectious diseases, the effects of mitigation measures and other critical aspects of national health crises. The funding will support eight interdisciplinary research projects aimed at incorporating the complexities of human behavior into epidemiological models.

The science of epidemiology studies the health of groups of people — including the causes and patterns of infectious disease spread — in populations ranging in size from individual neighborhoods to the entire world. Advanced mathematical models are invaluable predictive tools in epidemiology and are widely used by health care professionals, decision-makers and leaders. However, the coronavirus pandemic revealed that current epidemiological models do not adequately account for the human behavioral, social and economic factors that are key to understanding and mitigating a rapidly changing public health crisis.

"The resiliency and health of every community in the U.S. can be strengthened by leveraging the fundamental power of mathematics to better understand behavioral and social dynamics," says NSF Assistant Director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences Sean L. Jones. "These new projects are bringing together researchers in a multitude of fields, from mathematical biology to social psychology, to unlock the insights that can provide policymakers and others with the most complete predictive models possible."

"This bold work is based on a simple but ambitious premise: The consequences of pandemics and other public health emergencies can and should be anticipated in advance," says NSF Assistant Director for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Kellina Craig-Henderson. "The potential value of this innovative research for every American is recognized not just by NSF but also by our incredible research community who has risen to this difficult but vital challenge."

The eight NSF-supported research projects, led by the institutions below, are administered through NSF's Mathematical Biology program: