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Forecasting the next outbreak

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, professor of biostatistics Nicholas Reich quickly became a leading figure in predicting how the novel coronavirus would spread. Because of his “ensemble approach,” which unified multiple models of disease spread to create some of the most accurate forecasts available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) partnered with the Reich Lab in April 2020 to create the COVID-19 Forecast Hub.

Now, Reich is working with the CDC on another important project: using lessons learned from COVID-19 to better inform decision-makers during future public health emergencies. The CDC’s Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics has established the nation’s first outbreak response and disease modeling network, which is made up of 13 institutional partners.

One of those partners is a joint UMass Amherst–University of Texas at Austin team co-led by Reich. It has been awarded $27.5 million to help implement forecasting and disease-modeling efforts over the next five years. “We’re looking forward to using this new partnership to take the best of what modeling and outbreak analytics have to offer and building tools and systems that can provide valuable insights to a wide range of stakeholders, from decision-makers at the local, state, and federal levels to the general public,” says Reich.



Deflating Inflation

For thinkers whose ideas are ahead of their time, validation can be slow to arrive. But for Isabella Weber, associate professor of economics, it happened in a whirlwind.

In December 2021 as inflation surged, an article of Weber’s went viral. She posited that strategic price controls might be a missing tool in the inflation-fighting toolbox, and warned that the traditional approach of hiking interest rates risked a recession and relied on increasing unemployment. Having used supply chain problems as an opportunity for price gouging, businesses were showing record profits, she said, which raising interest rates wouldn’t fix.

The price control idea was vehemently rejected by conventional thinkers across the internet—but just two months later, when Russia invaded Ukraine and European energy prices skyrocketed, people started coming around to Weber’s viewpoint. Weber, who was raised in West Germany, was approached by the German Ministry of Economic Affairs to join a commission to contain gas and heating prices—which it quickly began doing using her price-stabilization plan.

Weber’s ideas are now considered sound economic practice by experts across the ideological spectrum, and she has received accolades for her visionary thinking, including being named to the 2023 “TIME100 Next” list of emerging global leaders. Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote in Time, “Our nation needs structural changes to promote competition and investment, and Weber’s bold ideas are helping shift the economic paradigm.”