RSS members lead a multidisciplinary research team that won this year’s National Excellence in Multistate Research Award

RSS members are part of a multidisciplinary multi-institution research team that received 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 of USDA multistate programs. The team was awarded the Western Region Excellence in Research Award this summer. While this honor is awarded annually, this is the first time social scientists have received either the Western Region or the National award.

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 are constantly changing, and many face challenges such as limited access to healthcare, education, broadband internet, and jobs. 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. W4001’s findings have contributed to numerous local, state and national policies that support rural sustainability and well-being.

The team includes 39 sociologists and other social scientists across 28 colleges and universities spanning all regions of the U.S. In just the last three years, the group has produced hundreds of peer-reviewed publications, published influential books, developed numerous public policy briefs, secured over $13 million in research funding, led workshops for community organizations, delivered over 300 presentations to stakeholders (including the U.S. Congress and the National Institutes of Health), and provided expert consultation to 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.

Findings have also affected natural resource management in rural areas. For example, research-based recommendations encouraged the Governor of Michigan to explore alternative energy options to address population decline and energy needs, and research on fishing declines in the Midwest prompted state natural resource departments to recruit and engage diverse stakeholders in management decisions.

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.

Several past Presidents of RSS currently participate in W4001 or participated in its predecessor committees prior to becoming emeritus professors: Eddy Berry, David Brown, Glenn Fuguitt, Leif Jensen, Dan Lichter, Linda Lobao, Joe Molnar, Joachim Singelmann, and Ann Tickamyer. RSS Past-Presidents James Christenson and Lou Swanson served as administrative advisors for W-4001’s predecessor committees for several years. Other RSS members who are also members of W4001 include Anne Cafer, Paige Castellanos, Raeven Chandler, Guangqing Chi, Shelley Clark, Katherine Curtis, Jamiko Deleveaux, Parfait Eloundou-Enyegue, Joe Francis, Nina Glasgow, Shaun Golding, John Green, Ken Johnson, Laszlo Kulcsar, Shannon Monnat, Tom Mueller, Vanessa Parks, David Peters, Dudley Poston, Jr., Hua Qin, Heather Randell, Scott Sanders, Matthew Sanderson, Jessica Schad, Kathleen Sexsmith, Tim Slack, Brian Thiede, Dan Veroff, Richelle Winkler, John Wardwell and Julie Zimmerman.

W4001’s current chairperson, Shannon Monnat, accepted the award on behalf of the group at the APLU/USDA national award ceremony, which took place virtually on October 28.