Better living through behavioral science

How the psychology of human behavior is helping tackle society’s biggest problems

By Wendy Plump

SUPPOSE someone approaches you on the street with the following proposition: You can receive either cash on the spot or a much larger contribution to your retirement account that likely will yield far more in the future. Do you choose the instant cash, or go with the retirement account?

The answer tells a lot about how people think, and about how public policymakers think people think.

Most people, it turns out, would choose the instant cash. Most policymakers, at least until somewhat recently, would have said that people would select the higher long-term payout of the retirement account.

Over the past two decades, policy planners from the Oval Office to the middle-school principal’s office have become aware that people often do not behave rationally, nor even in their own best interests. Understanding why people act as they do is the basis of the growing discipline of behavioral science, which is helping shape policies that tackle society’s biggest problems, from financial planning to public health.

“It is remarkable how little effort has been made to understand human behavior in policy circles,” said Eldar Shafir, the Class of 1987 Professor in Behavioral Science and Public Policy and a leader in this field of research. “Policy depends upon people doing things that the policymakers expect them to do. Yet, there has been almost no attempt to understand what people actually do, what they can do and what they want to do.”

Shafir has been working to change that along with colleagues at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Wilson School researchers are exploring the behavioral aspects of policies that combat poverty, school bullying, discrimination and many other issues.

The idea that psychology is essential for good public policy can be traced back 100 years to American economist John Maurice Clark at Columbia University, according to Shafir. “Clark pointed out that any time you design policy, you have to understand psychology,” Shafir said. “If you don’t, your policy design and implementation will often be flawed.”

This may sound like common sense, but in the past, psychology rarely had a place at the policy table, said Daniel Kahneman, Princeton’s Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, and professor of psychology and public affairs, emeritus, and a pioneer in the field. Instead, two disciplines — economics and law — were the wells from which policymakers drew almost exclusively.

Kahneman’s work is credited with improving economic analyses by including insights from psychology, especially on human judgment and decision making under uncertainty. The citation for his 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences lauds him for “laying the foundation for a new field of research.”

Yet, Kahneman is uncomfortable taking credit for the field’s progress. Instead, he cites economist Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago. Thaler and Harvard University Law School’s Cass Sunstein co-authored a 2008 book titled, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness, that ushered applied behavioral science into the public consciousness.

The book brought attention to concepts such as how to present choices to people in ways that provide a gentle prod toward making good decisions. For example, automatically enrolling new employees in a retirement-savings program and allowing them to opt out, rather than encouraging employees to opt in to the program, dramatically increases the number of people who save for retirement.

These and other insights are backed up by extensive studies of how people actually behave and make decisions in given situations. A number of Princeton researchers are involved in research in behavioral science that has direct implications for public policy:

Stopping schoolyard conflict

Early in her career, Elizabeth Levy Paluck became interested in how social norms can influence people’s behavior. In post-genocide Rwanda, she found that a media campaign to help reduce prejudice and violence drew much of its success from its emphasis on changing people’s definition of acceptable and desired behavior.

“I study social norms — informal laws that are created and enforced by people,” said Paluck, professor of psychology and public affairs in the Wilson School. “How do people in a community figure out what these laws are, and how to follow them? One theory is that we look to the behavior of certain peers for cues as to what we should be doing.”

Paluck and colleagues wondered whether highly influential students could have an outsized impact on the social norms and behaviors of other students in a school setting. They designed an intervention called the Roots program that was aimed at reducing school bullying and conflict by convincing influential students to practice positive behaviors, with the goal of reaching wider networks of peers.

With colleagues at Rutgers and Yale universities, Paluck tested this approach in a study conducted at 56 middle schools throughout New Jersey. The researchers asked students to report who they socialized with on a regular basis — both in person and online — and then used the data to identify the most connected students.

The analysis identified students who were leaders among their specific peer groups, not just those who were the most popular overall. The researchers encouraged this small set of students to take a public stand against bullying at their schools. Would these “social referents” be able to spread social change?

Paluck and her collaborators found that middle schools that instituted Roots experienced a 30 percent reduction in reported “conflict incidents,” a finding the researchers published Jan. 4, 2016, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The results suggest that behavior-change campaigns may be made more effective when they harness networks of influence to change societal norms.

Funding for the project came from the William T. Grant Foundation’s Scholars Program, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, Princeton’s Educational Research Section, the Russell Sage Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Spencer Foundation.

Combating scarcity

For his research on poverty, Shafir studies the impact that deprivation has on an individual’s ability to focus intellectual energy on life tasks. His work touches on the age-old question regarding the causes and effects of poverty: Are people poor because they are not capable, or are they are not capable because they are poor?

Shafir and his team have found that poor people are often quite good at making short-term decisions about how to spend money. But the continual pressure to make ends meet can create an oppressive cognitive load on the individual, leaving little bandwidth for other tasks, including long-term planning.

This situation is compounded by the fact that small but unexpected expenses, such as a car-repair bill, can have much larger consequences for poor people than for middle-class individuals who have some slack in their monthly budget. Shafir and co-author Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard explored research on poverty in their 2013 book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. They challenge the common societal perception that poverty is the result of personal failings and recast it as the outcome of a chronic lack of resources, be it money, transportation and housing, or even time.

Understanding the drivers of behavior among the poor can guide policies that help reduce the stresses and challenges associated with poverty, Shafir said. For example, if a fast-food company were to hand out employee work schedules further in advance — as opposed to the 48-hour timeframe it typically uses — then parents would be able to dedicate fewer cognitive resources to the constant management of childcare concerns, leaving them with more resources to devote to other aspects in their lives, including their job performance.

Counteracting stereotypes

Since she came to Princeton 16 years ago, Susan Fiske, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and professor of psychology and public affairs, has been researching issues of bias, discrimination and stereotypes.

One area of study involves exploring our perceptions of people as “warm and trustworthy” and “competent” at what they do. Middle-class individuals get high ratings on both counts, while homeless people and undocumented immigrants score low on both counts. Older people are seen as trustworthy but not competent, and rich people are seen as competent but not trustworthy.

In a study published earlier this year, Fiske and graduate student Jillian Swencionis reported that people in the workplace try to appear more competent by acting cold when dealing with their superiors, while superiors play up their warmth when dealing with subordinates. Supervisors and subordinates engage in these behaviors both to disprove stereotypes about themselves and to match what they think about the other person.

Recognizing these warmth-competence tradeoffs in interactions between employees of different ranks could help improve communications within organizations. The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in May 2016. Swencionis was funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

“People automatically categorize other people by race and gender and age,” Fiske said. “They do this without intention, so it’s not about evil motivation when people act on these associations. It’s kind of a default. As a result, people and organizations have to engage in extraordinary efforts to counteract that proclivity.”

No matter how groundbreaking the research, it is useless to public policy unless it is available to people in a position to implement it. So, Fiske started the journal Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences a few years ago. The journal is affiliated with the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences, which does education and advocacy work. Fiske has been the federation’s president and serves on its executive committee.

Bringing policy into the 21st century

In September 2015, President Barack Obama signed an executive order directing federal agencies to draw on emerging research from the field of behavioral science when crafting policies. Obama described the directive as a way to “bring our government into the 21st century.”

Researchers at the Wilson School and in Princeton’s Department of Psychology are helping lead the application of behavioral science to policymaking through their work in government, at think tanks and nongovernmental organizations, and at schools and institutions. The growing demand for these skills led Shafir and several colleagues to cofound ideas42, a nonprofit company devoted to creating behaviorally informed solutions to societal problems.

The Wilson School also is home to a new center launched in spring 2015 and led by Shafir that is focused on applied behavioral science research. In the fall of 2016, the Kahneman-Treisman Center for Behavioral Science & Public Policy launched its inaugural symposium. The center has more than 45 affiliated faculty members, including Alin Coman and Johannes Haushofer, both assistant professors of psychology and public affairs in the Wilson School. The center also has members from 11 departments across campus, including such diverse fields as geosciences, human values, philosophy and African American studies.

“It’s an exciting time,” Fiske said. “I’m a child of the ’60s and ’70s. So for me to be able to have an influence with data on policy is really a dream come true. We wanted to make the world a better place. It’s not so clear that we did, but there’s progress on several fronts.”

Sailing the Water’s Edge: The Domestic Politics of American Foreign Policy

Authors: Helen V. Milner and Dustin Tingley
Publisher: Princeton University Press, 2015B_5_Milner_SailingTheWater'sEdge

When engaging with other countries, the U.S. government has a number of different policy instruments at its disposal, including foreign aid, international trade and the use of military force. But what determines which policies are chosen? Does the United States rely too much on the use of military power and coercion in its foreign policies? Sailing the Water’s Edge focuses on how domestic U.S. politics — in particular the interactions between the president, Congress, interest groups, bureaucratic institutions and the public — have influenced foreign policy choices since World War II and shows why presidents have more control over some policy instruments than others.

Helen Milner, Princeton’s B.C. Forbes Professor of Public Affairs and professor of politics and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, and Dustin Tingley, professor of government at Harvard University, explore whether American foreign policy will remain guided by a grand strategy of liberal internationalism, what affects American foreign policy successes and failures, and the role of U.S. intelligence collection in shaping foreign policy. Sailing the Water’s Edge examines the importance of domestic political coalitions and institutions on the formation of American foreign policy.

All text and images courtesy of the publisher.

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Equal Recognition: The Moral Foundations of Minority Rights

B_6_Patten_EqualAuthor: Alan Patten
Publisher: Princeton University Press, 2015

Conflicting claims about culture are a familiar refrain of political life in the contemporary world. On one side, majorities seek to fashion the state in their own image, while on the other, cultural minorities press for greater recognition and accommodation. Theories of liberal democracy are at odds about the merits of these competing claims. Multicultural liberals hold that particular minority rights are a requirement of justice conceived of in a broadly liberal fashion. Critics, in turn, have questioned the motivations, coherence and normative validity of such defenses of multiculturalism.

In Equal Recognition, Alan Patten, the Howard Harrison and Gabrielle Snyder Beck Professor of Politics, reasserts the case in favor of liberal multiculturalism by developing a new ethical defense of minority rights. He describes a new, nonessentialist account of culture, and he rehabilitates and reconceptualizes the idea of liberal neutrality and uses this idea to develop a distinctive normative argument for minority rights.

All text and images courtesy of the publisher.

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ROBERT KEOHANE receives James Madison Award in American political science

PHOTO BY SAMEER A. KHAN/FOTOBUDDY

PHOTO BY SAMEER A. KHAN/FOTOBUDDY

Robert Keohane, professor of public and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, received the 2014 James Madison Award from the American Political Science Association (APSA).

The award, given once every three years, “recognizes an American political scientist who has made a distinguished scholarly contribution to political science.” The official citation describes Keohane as a “complete scholar” and cites his extensive writing in the field of international politics, his mentorship of generations of students, his dedication to the discipline, and his commitment to the association as the basis for his award.

APSA also cited Keohane’s past work, including After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (1984) and Designing Social Inquiry (1994), as having had an impact on scholarship in international affairs for many years.

“We are thrilled that Bob received the James Madison Award,” said Cecilia Rouse, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School and the Lawrence and Shirley Katzman and Lewis and Anna Ernst Professor in the Economics of Education. “His work has had and continues to have a profound impact on the profession. We celebrate his honor as one of the leaders in political science.”

–By Eric Wilkens

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Wild birds: A trip to the market reveals species imperiled

Wild Birds

“Wild birds are being vacuumed out of the forests, gardens and fields of Indonesia, and we have to quickly figure out which species are in danger of extinction.” –David Wilcove, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School

THE SIGHT OF A SOUTHEAST ASIAN BIRD market rivals the din of one for being overwhelming. Thousands of wild-caught birds are packed into cages that hang from eaves and fill market stalls to the ceiling, lining the paths trod by prospective buyers like a living wall. Taken from fields and forests, these birds are prized for their song, their colors, their spiritual significance or their long-time association with status and wealth. For the people who come to these markets, the birds — young and old, endangered and common — have meaning and value.

But to scientists, conservationists and governments, the wild-pet trade is a destructive yet unmonitored and elusive force on wildlife populations.

Princeton University researchers went deep into the wild-bird markets and trapping operations on the Indonesian island of Sumatra to document the draining of species by the pet trade. They found there a new and interesting weapon in the struggle to gauge — and halt — the devastation of the wildlife trade on animal populations: the very markets where the animals are bought and sold.

Species that are disappearing as a result of the pet trade can be identified by changes in their market prices and trade volumes, a study led by the Princeton researchers found. The researchers studied open-air pet markets on Sumatra from 1987 to 2013 and found that bird species that increased in price but decreased in availability exhibited plummeting populations in the wild.

The researchers concluded in the journal Biological Conservation in July 2015 that a prolonged rise in price coupled with a slide in availability could indicate that a species is being wiped out by its popularity in the pet trade. Through regular pet-market monitoring, conservationists and governments could use this information as an early indicator that a particular species is in trouble, the researchers reported.

Lead author Bert Harris, who was a postdoctoral fellow in the Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy in Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs when the work was conducted, said that market monitoring can be done far more quickly and cheaply than field-based monitoring of wild populations.

birds

Birds such as the Oriental white-eye (top photo ) are packed into tight cages where they are at risk of disease. Many Asian and African countries host a startling number of species yet have lax-to-nonexistent monitoring and conservation programs. The Princeton researchers’ market-monitoring method can be done far more quickly and cheaply than field-based monitoring of wild populations. PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID WILCOVE

One important function of the study is to highlight the pet trade as an emerging threat facing many birds and other wildlife, one that can act independently from other drivers of extinction such as habitat loss, said senior author David Wilcove, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs in the Wilson School.

He and Harris worked with co-authors Jonathan Green, who was a Princeton postdoctoral researcher in the Wilson School and is now at the University of Cambridge; Xingli Giam, who earned his Ph.D. at Princeton in 2014 and is now at the University of Washington; and researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.

“Wild birds are being vacuumed out of the forests, gardens and fields of Indonesia and we have to quickly figure out which species are in danger of extinction,” Wilcove said. “We’ve got to change how we tackle this problem.”

Carter Roberts, president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund, said that the researchers’ use of wildlife-trade market data to identify endangered species is a “potentially breakthrough idea.”

“What I think makes this paper so exciting is that it suggests a two-pronged approach to addressing the threat to biodiversity posed by the wildlife trade: using market data to identify the species that are likely being severely overexploited, and then targeted research and conservation efforts at those species,” Roberts said.

The researchers found that 14 birds popular in Sumatran pet markets were identified by local experts as declining or severely declining — yet, only two are officially recognized as imperiled. In addition, only two species are restricted to old growth forests, meaning that deforestation alone could not explain the declines. The pet trade was clearly a culprit, too. Furthermore, the researchers found that six species that are not popular as pets exhibited population increases. The researchers confirmed their method by studying the cases of two birds that are critically endangered by the pet trade — the yellow-crested cockatoo and the Bali myna.

Existing studies have explored wildlife markets, but only documented a species’ market volume, or availability, Harris said. The Princeton-led study, which was supported by the High Meadows Foundation, is the first to consider price and market volume. Market availability alone can fluctuate for reasons unrelated to a species’ wild population, such as a decrease in popularity, he said.

During the course of the research, Harris visited bird markets to gather price and availability data. They are chaotic places where Westerners asking about prices are viewed with suspicion.

“The markets are the dirty part of conservation,” Harris said. “They’re noisy and smelly. And after someone who looks like me asks about prices two or three weeks in a row, sellers just stop responding.”

Wilcove was inspired to conduct the current research after a trip to Sumatra when he noticed a prevalence of wild-caught pet birds. Research has found that 22 percent of Indonesian households own birds.

One bird the researchers identified as declining in the wild, the white-rumped shama, which is prized for its song, can be raised in captivity. Yet people seem to prefer the wild individuals, Wilcove said. He and Harris want to explore how governments and conservation groups can convince people to keep captive-raised birds.

“It’s time for some new approaches,” Wilcove said.

–By Morgan Kelly

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Nobel Prize in economics goes to Angus Deaton

Angus Deaton

Angus Deaton, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of International Affairs and a professor of economics and international affairs in Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in economics for his contributions to understanding consumption at the individual level and in aggregate. PHOTO BY DENISE APPLEWHITE

 

 

 

 

 

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Life among strangers: Exile in the Middle Ages

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IN THE 1300s, A ROVING GANG OF THUGS went on a crime spree in France that included robbery, homicide and burial — possibly alive — of a body in a public privy. One of the gang’s members was Philip “Little Phil” Cavillon, an Englishman who’d been sentenced to exile in France.

The lives of Little Phil and other exiled English subjects in the late Middle Ages are the focus of a new book by historian William Chester Jordan, the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History. By studying English judicial documents, petitions to the king for pardon and surviving French records, Jordan pieced together the stories of these forsaken individuals in the scholarly work From England to France: Felony and Exile in the High Middle Ages (2015, Princeton University Press).

Not all of the exiles were murderers, but most had committed a serious crime, such as arson or theft, and then sought refuge in a church where they confessed their sins. Protected from execution by the church, the offenders were condemned to exile.

Between 1180 and 1350, thousands of men and the occasional woman went into exile, or “abjured the realm,” boarding ships in the port of Dover and arriving, often penniless and desperate, in the village of Wissant in a Dutch-speaking region of France. Some sought work as farm laborers, servants or prostitutes, while others, like Little Phil, resumed their lawless behaviors.

Jordan’s stories of these exiles bring to life what it was like to live at the height of the Middle Ages, an era that was prosperous by medieval standards but was close enough to subsistence level that theft was a threat to survival and punishable by death.

The practice of sentencing of criminals to exile probably arose as a backlash to the harsh punishments — notably hanging — allowed by medieval English law, Jordan said, drawing comparisons to the use of exile by France, which transferred felons to French Guiana, and Russia, which shipped political prisoners to Siberia.

“When society realizes that too many people are being executed,” Jordan said, “you begin to see the rise of alternatives such as exile, which itself contributed to many deaths, but far out of sight of the authorities.”

–By Catherine Zandonella

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Baby steps: Inside the developing brain

Baby Steps

PHOTO BY DENISE APPLEWHITE

AT ONE OF PRINCETON’S NEWEST RESEARCH LABS, the T-shirts only go up to 4T, the art on the walls is done in crayon and the books on the shelves include The Little Mermaid.

Researchers at the Princeton Baby Lab study how babies and young children learn to see, talk and understand the world. The lab, located in the Department of Psychology’s Peretsman Scully Hall, opened this summer and is co-directed by two new additions to the Princeton faculty, assistant professors of psychology Lauren Emberson and Casey Lew-Williams.

Emberson investigates how experience supports learning and early development. She focuses on the development of perceptual abilities such as vision, hearing and multisensory perception. She often uses neuroimaging techniques that let researchers see infants’ brains change as they learn and develop.

“How infants are using their experiences to develop is a huge mystery,” Emberson said. “We’re examining how babies are developing expectations about the world and shape their neural activity almost in real time.”

Lew-Williams examines how babies and young children learn language. His research subjects include children growing up in poverty and children with communication disorders. His studies often involve children listening to language, looking at pictures and watching short videos as researchers track their eye movements.

“The most fundamental, basic science questions I’m interested in are what is learning, how does it happen and how does it happen differently for different children?” Lew-Williams said. “To me, language is a great way to investigate this because language is such an important skill. How does language learning get off the ground in infancy?”

–By Michael Hotchkiss

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Unconscious bias: Research helps break down barriers

Stacey Sinclair

Unconscious bias: Research helps break down barriers, PHOTO BY SAMEER A. KHAN/FOTOBUDDY

STACEY SINCLAIR WAS AWARE OF INEQUALITY AT A YOUNG AGE. ”On some level I was always interested in injustice,” said Sinclair, an associate professor of psychology and African American studies. “As a 7-year-old, I wanted to be the first black female to do everything.”

Today, Sinclair uses the tools of science to peel back the human psyche in search of the causes of racial inequality. In a recent study, she and Drew Jacoby-Senghor, who earned his doctorate in 2014, explored how implicit prejudices affected people’s interactions. Since people tend to group together based on shared characteristics, Sinclair and Jacoby-Senghor wondered if people with the same levels of implicit prejudice — also called unconscious bias — end up in the same circles.

The researchers found that whites with stronger implicit anti-black bias were less motivated to affiliate with whites who have black friends than with whites who have white friends. In other words, people likely to have similar levels of implicit prejudice gravitated toward each other, even if they weren’t consciously aware of it. The study was published in the September 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

For the study, the researchers recruited white participants via an online platform and showed them pairs of faces, one white and the other either white or black. In each case, subjects were asked to rate the friendliness of the white face by answering questions such as, “To what extent do you think you would want to become friends with this person?” Additionally, the subjects’ perceived similarity between themselves and the person on the screen was measured by asking how strongly they agreed with statements such as, “This person and I probably see things in much the same way.”

Sinclair and her collaborators found that white participants with higher implicit bias exhibited higher perceived similarity to the white faces paired with a white friend. This perceived similarity in turn was related to a stronger desire for friendship.

Sinclair’s previous research shows that people adjust their implicit-prejudice level to match the views of the people with whom they interact, a principle called social tuning. This research, which Sinclair outlined in a 2014 review article in the journal Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, suggests that egalitarian views can be catching.

Sinclair offers some practical advice based on her research. To make use of social tuning, she advises: “Literally wear your egalitarianism on your sleeve. In policy, what this means is make it clear that this is an environment that truly appreciates diversity, that equality is a value that the individuals in this environment hold. Our research suggests that people’s attitudes will change to be in line with these values relatively effortlessly on their part.”

In awareness of their tendency to seek similarity, Sinclair suggests that people step out of their comfort zone. “When you’re networking, or when you’re at a party, and you’re deciding who to walk up to, if your impulse tells you to go one way, go the other way. If we all did that, it could really change what our networks look like.”

–By Takim Williams

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Measles may weaken immune system up to three years

Measles vaccination

Measles may weaken immune system up to three years. PHOTO BY SHUTTERSTOCK

THE MEASLES VIRUS can lead to serious disease in children by suppressing their immune systems for up to three years, according to a study published in the journal Science on May 8, 2015. The study provides evidence that measles may throw the body into a much longer-term state of “immune amnesia,” where essential memory cells that protect the body against infectious diseases are partially wiped out. This vulnerability was previously thought to last a month or two.

“We already knew that measles attacks immune memory, and that it was immunosuppressive for a short amount of time. But this paper suggests that immune suppression lasts much longer than previously suspected,” said C. Jessica Metcalf, co-author and assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs, who is affiliated with Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

The research findings suggest that — apart from the major direct benefits — measles vaccination may also provide indirect immunological protection against other infectious diseases.

The work was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security, and the Research and Policy for Infectious Disease Dynamics (RAPIDD) Program of the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center.

–By B. Rose Huber

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