For nearly every pressing social and political issue -- immigration, poverty, education reform, public health and environmental protection, for instance -- Cornell professor Dan Lichter sees a common thread: demography.
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"Population change sets the broader policy context for almost every problem that’s on our radar screen -- nationally and internationally," said Lichter, the Ferris Family Professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management and professor of sociology. "Demographic research helps to explain what is driving such issues and also helps to project where we are headed in the future."
As the new director of the Cornell Population Center (CPC), Lichter and other CPC leaders are uniting Cornell scholars from a wide swath of disciplines to apply demography in three main areas: families and children, health behaviors and disparities, and poverty and inequality. Founded in 2007 as the Cornell Population Program, CPC now includes 96 faculty members and research associates from 17 departments and 10 centers and programs across campus. Lichter described it as an "intellectual community and hub for major social science projects."
"There is so much talent in demography and social sciences across Cornell, but it is at times fragmented," Lichter said. "We want CPC to be the broker that supports this research and connects faculty members across disciplines."
CPC functions as a one-stop shop for population researchers, providing assistance with grant proposals and management, training in cutting-edge statistical methods, support for data analysis and enhanced computing services, and multiple grant programs to help fund promising projects and scholars.
The center recently awarded its first Frank H.T. Rhodes Postdoctoral Fellowship to Bongoh Kye, a postdoc in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management. The fellowships, funded by a $5 million gift from The Atlantic Philanthropies, are meant to further scholarship and research in such areas as poverty alleviation, public health, human rights, and support of the elderly and disadvantaged children. Kye’s research examines how differences in demographic behaviors such as marriage and childbearing contribute to the reproduction of social inequality.
To grow its intellectual community, CPC invites leading social scientists at Cornell and other institutions to its seminar series to talk about how they are applying demography in novel ways. Examples of topics so far this spring include census data and labor markets, links between medical marijuana laws and traffic fatalities, and educational outcomes of single-sex schools in South Korea.
The seminars also offer graduate students the opportunity to meet with these leading scholars while they are on campus, said Scott Sanders, a graduate student in development sociology. "I personally was able to talk with one of the top experts on Asian demography, who helped me formulate my dissertation research questions and provided professional that played an essential role in my data collection," Sanders said.
Lichter, current president of the Population Association of America, believes the center is primed to grow into a National Institutes of Health (NIH) population center, of which there are 18 in the country. Cornell is one of six sites to receive a five-year, $1.15 million NIH "baby grant" to build the research infrastructure needed for a full-fledged national center. This fall, CPC leaders will submit a grant proposal for full NIH funding.
Among the many factors that stand out at CPC, Lichter said, is the cross-disciplinary nature of its research.
"The single-investigator approach to research only goes so far," Lichter said. "Most major discoveries and breakthroughs occur at the boundaries between disciplines, and we are building those bridges among many faculty members."
Ted Boscia is assistant director of for the College of Human Ecology.
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