Puerto Rico Research Hub Joins Global Network of Pandemic Social Research

What’s driving violent anti-Chinese discrimination in Nairobi, Kenya, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and what can be done to quell it? How are part-time theme park workers in central Florida handling massive furloughs, and what could their employers be doing better? What unique challenges did people with disabilities face in Wuhan, China, during the lockdown?

These are among the many questions social scientists around the globe are asking as they swiftly pivot from previous projects to learn all they can from arguably the most socially disruptive event in modern history.

To provide leadership, catalogue projects and create a vehicle for collaboration across disciplines and distances, the Natural Hazards Center, headquartered at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in partnership with the Puerto Rico Research Hub at the University of Central Florida, has launched the COVID-19 Global Research Registry for Public Health and Social Sciences. 

“This is a transformative moment for the social and behavioral sciences,” said Center Director and sociology Professor Lori Peek, Ph.D. “We have decades of lessons learned from past disasters to apply. But this is the first global event in living memory that reveals so fully our need to understand human behavior. We are mobilizing to learn from it and use that knowledge for public good.”

The Puerto Rico Research Hub is contributing a “diverse voice” in the study of disasters by tapping into Central Florida’s large Puerto Rican community, explained Fernando Rivera, Ph.D., professor of sociology at UCF and the Hub’s director. Rivera is also contributing connections to the Social Science Extreme Events Research Network.

During the current pandemic, the Hub is linked to two working groups for public health and social sciences research. The first group studies emergency management, the second Puerto Ricans and COVID-19.

“During these extraordinary times is important to highlight social science research and how it can help us understand the social impact of COVID-19. A registry will allow researchers from around the world to collaborate and provide resources to inform the general public and decision makers,” said Rivera.

The first-of-its-kind registry, cur­rently available in English, French, Spanish, and Chinese, is analogous to clinicaltrials.gov for the medical sciences. To sign up, one must be studying social, behavioral or public health aspects of the pandemic. Journalists, funding agencies, philanthropists and other researchers will be able to peruse the site, looking for story ideas, beneficiaries, and collaborators.

The efforts grew out of CONVERGE and the Social Science Extreme Events Research Network, both National Science Foundation-funded initiatives housed at the Natural Hazards Center and meant to serve as a connective tissue to help scientists and engineers from across the world collaborate in the study of natural hazards and other major disasters.

On March 19, just as stay-at-home orders were beginning to kick in across the country, Peek convened a CONVERGE virtual forum to discuss the historic pandemic threatening lives and livelihoods everywhere.

Nearly 300 social scientists attended remotely from around the world – many with projects underway, exploring everything from the virus’s implications for mental health to the role of tech in helping children stay connected to what kinds of messaging garner trust vs. distrust.

“The team here realized there is so much momentum, we have to do more,” said Peek, who is also principal investigator of CONVERGE and the Social Science Extreme Events Research Network.

Aaida Mamuji, an assistant professor at York University in Toronto, has participated in the CONVERGE virtual forums and was among the first to sign up for the new research registry. Through her study, her team will survey residents in the large Chinese communities of Toronto, Canada and Nairobi, Kenya, about the backlash they have experienced since the virus – originally referred to by some as the “Wuhan” virus – first emerged.

“The long-term goal is to develop counter measures to reduce misinformation, combat stigma, and counteract fear associated with this public health disaster,” Mamuji said. “We hope this research project will contribute to mitigating the targeting of specific ethnic groups in future infectious disease outbreaks.”

Chelsea LeNoble, an assistant professor of industrial organization psychology at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, has also signed on.

Through studies involving everyone from university faculty to employees at theme parks, restaurants, health care facilities and airlines, her team hopes to learn what employers are doing right and could be doing better to bolster worker resilience.

“The biggest issues facing society today cannot be solved by one discipline alone,” LeNoble said. “This is the time for people to work as a team of teams with the goal of understanding much more together than we can alone. The registry is a fantastic step in the right direction.”

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