AUSTIN (KXAN) — Dr. Mark Escott, Austin’s chief medical officer, has been named a project leader of the new University of Texas Center for Pandemic Decision Science.

After playing a leading role in the city’s fight against COVID-19 as Austin-Travis County interim health authority, Escott transitioned into his current role of Austin chief medical officer. He has now been tapped to work alongside scientists, engineers, clinicians and policymakers from UT Austin and across the U.S. to develop a plan to improve public health responses.

“Austin and Travis County’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been praised for limiting the impact of the disease on our community,” Escott said in a release. “In particular, the staged risk guidelines used by Austin Public Health have served as a national model for using science to shape policy and community decision-making. We are grateful for the trust placed in us by the National Science Foundation to develop a plan to improve responses to future pandemics across the United States and beyond.”

According to the release, the new center will tackle three fundamental challenges that are considered critical to the future resilience of the planet:

  • Anticipating novel pathogen threats and detecting them at their source.
  • Forecasting and positively influencing individual, collective and governmental responses to emerging threats.
  • Integrating science into every stage of pandemic decision-making, including prevention, detection, containment and mitigation.

There are more than 40 multidisciplinary investigators from 11 different institutions collaborating to launch the new center. Over the next 18 months, they will host five workshops and conduct five pilot projects, including a hackathon to forecast human health behaviors and a pathogen ‘wargame’ exercise for Texas public agencies. 

These activities are designed to “build a roadmap for closing fundamental gaps in our understanding of pandemics,” according to Lauren Ancel Meyers, professor of integrative biology and statistics and data sciences at UT Austin, who will serve as a primary investigator for the new center.

The new center will also provide educational and research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students at UT.

The center is being set up with a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation.