By Willy Ngumbi

In today’s information ecosystem, accurate health information is not getting through to everyone, everywhere. The viral spread of mis-information and disinformation has been widely acknowledged as a major and growing threat to public safety and to effective pandemic response.

In Response to this, the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) through the Mercury Project announced it will provide an initial USD 7.2 million in direct research funds to 12 teams working in 17 countries in order to better understand how health mis- and disinformation spreads, how to combat it, and how to build stronger information systems, while increasing COVID-19 vaccination rates.

The Mercury project is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation with a total of USD 10.25 million.

“This initial cohort’s ideas exemplify the creativity and vision behind the Mercury Project,” said Dr. Bruce Gellin, Chief of Global Public Health Strategy at The Rockefeller Foundation.

“They go far beyond quick fixes, with the goal of identifying robust, cost-effective, and meaningful solutions that can be widely adopted and scaled. We hope that more, better, and science-based knowledge about what we need to do will lead to increased uptake of reliable information and serve as a powerful counter to the effects of misinformation and disinformation on vaccine demand.”

The Mercury Project will provide research grants over a three-year period to researchers and organizations for the purpose of, estimating the causal impacts of mis- and disinformation on online and offline outcomes in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and estimating the causal impacts of online or offline interventions to increase uptake of COVID-19 vaccines and other recommended public health measures.

The Mercury Project will also provide a suite of research sharing and policy development activities for grantees and other invited organizations to enable more effective policy and regulatory responses to current and future public health emergencies. The work of the consortium will provide a foundation for data-driven policy and regulatory interventions enabling the creation of a healthier information environment.

So far the SSRC is supporting a first cohort of social and behavioral scientists from around the world to generate much-needed new research on locally tailored solutions in Bolivia, Brazil, Côte D’Ivoire, Ghana, Haiti, India, Kenya, Malawi, Mexico, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, United States, and Zimbabwe.

“The viral, vaccine, and information environments are all rapidly evolving–but that doesn’t mean it is impossible to make progress towards more effective and equitable responses,” said Heather Lanthorn, Program Director at the Mercury Project.

“By funding projects on the ground around the world, this work will help us understand what works where, and why, and identify new ways to harness the power of connection and communication to advance public health goals.”

Researchers in the Mercury Project’s first cohort are affiliated with research institutions and implementing partners around the world. Funded projects will provide evidence about what works and what does not–in specific places and for specific groups to increase Covid-19 vaccination take-up, including what is feasible on the ground and has the potential to be cost-effective at scale.

Regular convening’s, both virtual and in-person, will ensure that grantee research projects are both informed by and inform health and technology decision-makers around the world. The first convening will occur in late August at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy, where thousands of scientists, policymakers, authors, and artists have turned innovative ideas into action since 1959.

Grantee teams will share their research designs with each other and with global health policy leaders, and will build a shared research framework to guide evaluations of interventions to increase COVID-19 vaccination demand and create healthier information environments. A second cohort of research teams will receive funding from the National Science Foundation.