USU Sociologist Part of National Research Team Awarded for Excellence in Rural Population Research

Utah State University Professor Emeritus of Sociology, E. Helen “Eddy” Berry, is part of a multidisciplinary multi-institution research team that was recently awarded the National Excellence in Multistate Research Award from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and the United States Department of Agriculture. The 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.

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 United States.

“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,” said Berry. “These 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. The team’s findings have contributed to numerous local, state and national policies that support rural sustainability and well-being.

The team includes 39 investigators across 28 colleges and universities spanning all regions of the United States. In just the last three years, the group has produced hundreds of peer-reviewed publications, developed numerous public 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 experts in multiple state and federal agencies.

In recent years, W4001’s research has helped address multiple major national health crises. For example, the 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, the project was the first to identify rising rural opioid overdose rates and explanations for those trends. This information, along with research on disability in rural places, has shaped national legislation, led to rapid resource allocation and influenced the design of an interactive data visualization tool that helps communities assess and respond to health crises. The groups’ research in these areas made it clear that when COVID-19 entered rural America, the impacts would be particularly harmful, as is currently being experienced.

Findings have also impacted 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 their 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.

Berry, who became Emeritus on July 1, has been part of the research team since 1993. At USU, she has served as director of the Yun Kim Population Research Center and is a Women and Gender Research Institute Distinguished Professor. She was president of the Rural Sociological Association and has chaired the research team. Berry’s work on migration, aging and disability has contributed in significant ways to the group’s research agenda.

The newest members of research team at USU are Assistant Professors Jennifer Givens, Tom Mueller and Jessica Ulrich-Schad, who joined the research group this year.

“I am thrilled to have led the group and to be part of these outstanding researchers,” Berry said.

The award reflects W4001’s numerous impacts in science, practice and policy on issues that are critical to rural America, including aging, migration, depopulation and declining health.

“We are pleased that the APLU and USDA recognize the important contributions of social science research on rural wellbeing,” said Berry.

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