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By Matt Hayes
  • Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station
  • Department of Global Development
  • Global Development

Cornell University is part of a multidisciplinary, multi-institution research team that earned the National Excellence in Multistate Research Award from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This prestigious and highly competitive award recognizes scientists who conduct exemplary research and outreach efforts across multiple states and in doing so enhance the visibility and impact of USDA multistate programs. This is the first time this award has been presented to social scientists.

The project, known as W4001: Social, Economic and Environmental Causes and Consequences of Demographic Change in Rural America, conducts research on the most pressing demographic, economic, social, and environmental challenges faced by rural communities in the U.S. Rural areas make up 72% of the nation’s land area, house 46 million people, and are essential to agriculture, natural resources, recreation, and environmental sustainability. These areas are constantly changing, and many face challenges such as limited access to healthcare, education, broadband internet, and jobs.

“Rural America — including rural Upstate New York — face extraordinary demographic and economic challenges now and into the future,” said Daniel Lichter, the Ferris Family Professor of Life Course Studies in Policy Analysis and Management and Sociology and member of the project team. “W4001 and Cornell's rural social scientists have placed the national spotlight on rural people and small towns. We are thrilled that the public policy community is paying close attention to our research and policy recommendations.”

Cornell experts include Nina Glasgow, Joe Francis and David Brown in the Department of Global Development, and Lichter in the College of Human Ecology. Earlier this year the team earned the Western Region Excellence in Research Award; the new award recognizes the team’s national excellence.

“This interdisciplinary group of scholars has provided me with invaluable collegial support throughout my career. My productivity and impact as a social demographer has been enhanced through participation in W-4001,” said Brown, emeritus international professor of global development.

Events like the Great Recession, the opioid epidemic, and the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted how such challenges can lead to major disruptions to the environmental, economic, social, and physical wellbeing of rural communities. The team’s findings have contributed to numerous local, state and national policies that support rural sustainability and well-being.

“Our examination of the effects of population aging on rural communities' access to and utilization of health and other services has provided important context for understanding a critical weakness in rural community response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Glasgow

Cornell research team

David Brown

Emeritus international professor of global development

Nina Glasgow

 Senior research associate (retired)

Daniel Lichter

Ferris Family Professor of Life Course Studies in Policy Analysis and Management and Sociology

Joe Francis

Emeritus associate professor of global development

A man stands on a balcony overlooking a city
Nina Glasgow sits on a bench outside
Daniel Lichter
Joe Francis

The team includes 39 investigators across 28 colleges, universities and federal government agencies spanning all regions of the U.S. In just the last three years, the group has produced over a hundred peer-reviewed publications, published several influential books, developed numerous policy briefs, secured over $13 million in research funding, led workshops for community organizations, delivered over 200 presentations to stakeholders (including the U.S. Congress and the National Institutes of Health), and consulted for multiple state and federal agencies.

In recent years, W4001’s research has helped address multiple major national health crises. For example, this project has provided essential information about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on rural communities, guiding states’ social distancing policies, resource allocation, testing, and reopening strategies. Additionally, this project was the first to identify rising rural opioid overdose rates and explanations for those trends. This information shaped national legislation, influenced the design of an interactive data visualization tool that helps communities assess and respond to the overdose crisis, and led to rapid resource allocation.

The group’s research also guided the placement and training of community health workers after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, resulting in enhanced preparedness and health capacity.

At Cornell, research by Lichter and Brown has examined the socio-demographic, economic and environmental relationships between large cities and their rural hinterlands. This research is especially important in highly urbanized states like New York where a large and growing share of population and economic activity is located in the rural-urban interface, and where people's contact with the natural environment is increasingly frequent, intense, and often problematic.

W4001’s research has informed anti-poverty policies, including changes in official measurements of poverty and underemployment and the distribution of safety net resources. Project members were the first to discover that rural populations are shrinking due to young adult outmigration, fewer births, and increased mortality. Researchers created a database that details county-level age-specific net migration trends. Hundreds of thousands of regional planners, insurance companies, school districts, senior housing developers, public health agencies, and other stakeholders have used the database to understand rural needs and market demand and to inform infrastructure development and resource allocation. Recently, the group’s research and outreach has helped numerous state governments prepare for the 2020 Census and facilitate a complete count.

“W-4001 scientists were among the first to use advanced GIS techniques to examine the impacts of measurement error at the local level on the accuracy of public statistics," said Francis.

The team will receive their award at the APLU/USDA national award ceremony, which takes place virtually on October 28.

Funding for the project from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture, with federal capacity funds for New York managed by the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station.


Header image: Spherical glass inverts image of people standing in a field. Photo by Allison Usavage.

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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