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IPR's Top 2021 Articles

Beyond the pandemic, our most-read content also covered violence, education, opioids, and racism, among others

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Top 2021 Articles

Snapshots from IPR's most-read 2021 articles (captions below)

As the COVID-19 crisis continued to ravage the U.S. and the globe, 2021 saw a January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the inauguration of a new U.S. president, record numbers of homicides, and a vaccine rollout, among other news. Many of IPR’s most-read articles reflect these and other pressing current events. But they also zeroed in on research that reflects ongoing societal concerns, such as the intensifying opioid crisis, the long-term effects of school shootings, addressing racism, and how language boosts infants’ brains.

IPR's Top 2021 Content

Man getting vaccinated

New Survey Shows Wide Gaps in Who is Getting Vaccinated

March 21, 2021 - In his March 11 primetime address, President Biden pledged that all adults over the age of 18 would have access to a COVID vaccine by May 1. Despite the progress in vaccinating more than 64 million Americans to date, a new national survey of more than 21,000 Americans underscores that wide disparities still exist in terms of who has been able to get a vaccine so far. It also pinpoints how a complex system of vaccine distribution cuts off the people best placed to convince more vulnerable Americans to get one. The researchers from Northwestern, Harvard, Northeastern, and Rutgers, including IPR political scientist James Druckman, conducted the survey between February 5 and March 1. They find that education was the biggest predictor of who had already been vaccinated: 29% of respondents with graduate degrees had already received their COVID shots versus just 9% of those with a high school diploma or less, and the figures were similar for vaccine hesitancy (8% vs. 30%). This survey is part of the ongoing COVID States Project.

The Opioid Crisis: An 'Epidemic Within the Pandemic'

June 28, 2021 - Before the COVID crisis, there was the opioid crisis. More than 840,000 Americans have died from opioid-related deaths since 1999, surging a record 37% in 2020. This increase reveals inequities in who is afflicted, healthcare access, and treatments. IPR neuroscientist Robin Nusslock, who studies the brain chemistry behind opioid addiction, finds that the best treatments are rooted in rehabilitation—not punishment. “During the months of the first pandemic wave, overdose rates were really at the highest that we have ever seen,” IPR economist Hannes Schwandt said, calling it an “epidemic within the pandemic.” IPR economist Molly Schnell says reducing prescriptions is critical, but it has to be paired with treatments as the drop in prescriptions leads to the use of more addictive illegal opioids. Research by IPR associates and health researchers Maryann Mason and Joe Feinglass points to a need to decriminalize opioid use. Controversial, but effective, options like medication-assisted treatment and safe consumption sites could help, especially to stem the overdoses occurring outside of hospitals. 


 Assay Plate Scan

More People Exposed to COVID-19 Virus Than Previously Known

April 13, 2021 - As the U.S. rushes to vaccinate Americans to prevent a wider outbreak of COVID-19, the FDA has currently authorized three vaccines for emergency use, two of which use a two-dose regime. Northwestern University researchers are conducting an ongoing community-based study that shows that mild or asymptomatic infections—which comprise the vast majority of infections in the general population—do not generate high levels of protective immunity. The study also shows that a single dose of current two-dose mRNA vaccines does not provide adequate protection for most people who had mild or asymptomatic cases of COVID-19. The interdisciplinary team of Northwestern scientists, who include IPR anthropologist Thomas McDade, launched a large community-based study called SCAN: Screening for Coronavirus Antibodies in Neighborhoods in June 2020. SCAN aims to track the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and to identify the circumstances and behaviors associated with exposure and severity of infection. 

Parent talking to child

White Parents Need to Talk About Race with Younger Children, Too

May 3, 2021 - In 2015, a 21-year-old white supremacist shot and killed nine Black Americans during a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Stories of the shooting flooded media outlets, providing parents with an opportunity to speak to their children about the crime and the racism that drove it. But in a survey conducted in the month following the shooting, only 37% of White parents had spoken with their 8- to 12-year-olds about it, according to a study by IPR psychologist Sylvia Perry and Jamie Abaied of the University of Vermont. "We wanted to understand the extent to which they [White parents] were discussing race-related events with their children," Perry explained. In the survey, the researchers asked 165 White parents various questions about how they talked to their children about race. "There's this discrepancy there where parents think, 'My kid is too young and I don't want to expose them to this negativity,' while at the same time children of color are actually experiencing discrimination already," Perry said.


 men in Chicago

Addressing Chicago's 'Unfathomable Violence'

August 17, 2021 - After a near record increase in 2020, levels of gun violence in Chicago remain stubbornly elevated, and deadly, in 2021. But not all parts of the city experience violence equally. Norman Kerr, former director of violence reduction in the Chicago mayor's office of public safety, pointed to the “safety gap” among the city’s communities during an August 10 panel discussion. The panel was co-organized by Ruby Mendenhall (PhD 2004) of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and IPR sociologist Andrew Papachristos. Kerr, Mendenhall, Papachristos, and a panel of sociologists, violence interrupters, and public officials examined the entrenched roots of violence in these Chicago communities, as well as efforts to prevent gun violence during the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) virtual annual conference. “Chicago is a city where gun violence is concentrated in a small number of neighborhoods that have been surveilled, locked up, and otherwise left out of economic, political, and social and education investments,” said Papachristos, who co-directs Northwestern’s Neighborhood and Network Initiative or N3.

School hallway

The Cost of School Shootings


January 27, 2021 - More than 240,000 U.S. students have experienced gun violence at school since the 1999 Columbine shooting, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. In a working paper, IPR economists Molly Schnell and Hannes Schwandt, along with Maya Rossin-Slater at Stanford University and Marika Cabral and Bokyung Kim at the University of Texas at Austin, examine the cost of school shootings to the surviving students. Beyond the terrible loss of life—with 147 students, educators, and others killed since 1999—the study is among the first to quantify the long-term impacts of school shootings on the numerous students who survived them. It finds that students do not just “bounce back” from shootings, and they are affected across the board—no matter their race, gender, or socioeconomic status. “You can see that this really sticks with students and affects their long-run trajectories, both in terms of their educational attainment and their economic outcomes,” Schnell said. In the short term, the researchers find students who experience a school shooting are more likely to miss school, be chronically absent, and repeat a grade two years after the event. Longer term, these students are less likely to graduate high school as well as attend and graduate from college.

 Group advocating for racial justice

Try These Policy Ideas to Close Racial Gaps

February 25, 2021 - On his first day as president, Joe Biden signed an executive order that the federal government pursue comprehensive policies to close racial gaps and advance equity for all. IPR faculty have identified and sought to diminish inequities, all of which the pandemic and ensuing recession have affected. These include: wealth inequality, hiring discrimination, health inequalities, criminal justice and policy disparities, achievement gaps in education, food access, and unfair housing. The data demonstrating these and other staggering examples of racial inequities were all uncovered or analyzed by IPR social demographers, sociologists, health disparities scholars, psychologists, political scientists, economists, and others. Through innovative experiments and sophisticated quantitative methods, IPR researchers document inequity with facts and figures. IPR researchers have also made specific research-driven policy and funding suggestions on education, healthcare, housing, and other government services that could help bring the goals of Biden’s executive order to fruition. 

Screenshot of Zoom

2021 SURA Blog


August 10, 2021 - Each summer since 1998, the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) has run the Summer Undergraduate Research Assistants (SURA) program, which gives undergraduate students first-hand experience in the conceptualization and conduct of policy-relevant social science research. Eight students wrote for IPR’s annual SURA blog about their experience working on research and being mentored by IPR’s faculty. These students worked on a variety of projects including analyzing discrepancies in disciplinary action between Black and White high school students, learning how stress impacts adolescents, and studying communication differences to decrease autism’s stigmatization. “Social science research is unpredictable, and adaptability is key,” wrote rising junior Angie Li in a blog post. “This adaptability is also important when new adversities arise, especially that affect children, such as the double pandemic of racism and COVID-19.” Li worked with Dr. Nia Heard-Garris, an IPR associate, in the ARISE (Adversity, Racism, Inequities, Structures, and Empowerment) Health Lab, which focuses on investigating how adversity and structural influences impact adolescent health. 


Child listening to mother

How Listening to Language Boosts Infant Cognition

June 15, 2021 - Even before infants can roll over in their cribs, research has shown that listening to language boosts their cognition. For infants as young as 3 months, listening to human speech supports their ability to form categories of objects (like “dog” or “bottle”). In these first months, it is not just language that can do this: Listening to vocalizations of non-human primates like lemur calls also supports infant cognition. But by 6 months, infants’ responses to lemur calls fade out and only listening to human speech continues to offer this cognitive advantage. In a study, IPR researchers Sandra WaxmanKali Woodruff Carr, and their colleagues provide the first evidence of the underlying neural mechanisms that support infants’ acquisition of this unique human language-cognition link. They identified developmental changes in 4- and 6-month-old infants’ neural responses to human speech and lemur calls, providing new insight into how the link to cognition becomes so rapidly attuned to human speech. 

girl wearing mask in school

Back to School: IPR Researchers Discuss the Pandemic's Impact

March 17, 2021 - How are students faring as U.S. schools reopen after being shuttered due to the pandemic? Many school districts are bringing their students back into the classroom after months of remote learning. IPR researchers answered a number of questions based on their research about reopening schools. A key theme that emerges in many answers is how shuttered schools and online learning may have exacerbated inequalities in student learning. IPR economist David Figlio notes that educators will need to work to prevent a “two-tier” system that advantages successful and well-off students over academically and financially struggling ones. IPR economist Kirabo Jackson demonstrates that increased spending on education results in better student outcomes, suggesting the shortsightedness of school funding cuts. The stress and grief that children suffer from will return to the classroom with them, IPR developmental psychologist Emma Adam observes, and she recommends pausing standardized testing until children begin to recover.  

Photo captions and credits:

Top image: (Clockwise from the top left) Headshot of Angie Li, a Summer Undergraduate Research Student (courtesy of A. Li); Chicago CRED street outreach workers connect with at-risk men in Chicago to prevent gun violence (B. Kinney, CRED/Emerson Collective); Woman holds a vaccine card (iStock); Bottle of prescription opioids (iStock); Screenshot of SCAN website; Stock photo of mother talking to her child (iStock)   

Images for articles by rows from left to right:  A Des Moines public school employee gets the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on February 6 ( P. Roeder, Flickr); Different types of opioids (iStock); An assay plate contains mailed-in samples of reconstituted blood (courtesy of T. McDade); Stock photo of a mother talking to her child (iStock); Chicago CRED street outreach workers connect with at-risk men in Chicago to prevent gun violence (B. Kinney, CRED/Emerson Collective); Stock photo of school hallway (Pixabay); Protesters in Kansas City, Kansas, call for measures to ensure equity in policing in July 2020 (J. Martinez, Flickr); Screenshot of SURA orientation on Zoom; Mother talks to her young child (LaVange, Flickr); A student sits behind a protective shield inside a school classroom in October 2020 ( A. Shelley for American Education, Flickr)

Published: December 14, 2021.