Natural Hazards Opinion

Call Scientists Before Disaster Strikes

When governments respond to natural disasters, experts with some of the greatest potential to help—scientists—are often missing in action. It's time to change that.

By , Theodora Gibbs-Plessl, and Jane Lubchenco

Picture this hypothetical scenario: Late on an October evening, the Coast Guard receives a call that a large oil spill has occurred off the north coast of Alaska. More than 200 million gallons of crude oil is gushing into frigid waters teeming with life.

The academic scientists in our scenario are uniquely positioned to minimize the impact of this crisis, and they could provide advice to avert future crises. They have studied the ecosystem for years and have worked closely with the affected communities. They are eager to contribute their expertise. If officials give them access to the spill site, they can gather data and provide input.

But those with the responsibility to contain the disaster view offers for assistance from academics as adding yet another risk and management headache to an already dangerous situation. Responders feel they have little control over the researchers, and they are unsure about the value and timeliness of the scientific contributions, given the urgency of the response. With frustration on both sides, harried agency responders proceed with their cleanup mandates, frustrated academics watch from the sidelines, and the value of collaboration goes unrealized.

Strengthening Weak Links

Unfortunately, this is the status quo for oil spill response: qualified academic scientists have limited ability to inform disaster preparedness and response. The BP Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico exposed critical weaknesses in how governmental entities avail themselves of academic scientists during crises. Although some academics were involved in the DWH response, thanks in large part to preexisting relationships, many more could have contributed but did not have the opportunity or the ability. Five years later, many of these weaknesses remain unaddressed.

A contract worker from Health, Safety, and the Environment (HSE) loads oily waste onto a trailer on Elmer's Island, just west of Grand Isle, La., 21 May 2010 during the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Credit: Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard/Marine Photobank
A contract worker from Health, Safety, and the Environment (HSE) loads oily waste onto a trailer on Elmer’s Island, just west of Grand Isle, La., 21 May 2010 during the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Credit: Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard/Marine Photobank

Weak links between academic expertise and governmental responders have also plagued responses to many other large-scale environmental disasters, including Hurricane Sandy and the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. Bolstering communication pathways among government, industry, and academia will help us to more effectively mitigate the consequences of disasters in any form—whether they are hurricanes, floods, or oil spills.

In the face of unpredictable yet inevitable disasters, we need a 9-1-1 emergency contact protocol to leverage the country’s scientific brainpower and enable scientists to spring into action. Time is of the essence. Another disaster is always right around the corner.

Over the past year, we have coordinated the Science Partnerships Enabling Rapid Response project through the Center for Ocean Solutions and ChangeLabs at Stanford University. We have worked in partnership with government agencies, academic institutions, and industries to understand the cultural gaps and tensions between academia and government.

In more than 100 interviews with stakeholders involved in Deepwater Horizon and subsequent crises, we uncovered key differences in the motivations, perceptions, and values of academic scientists, government decision makers, and industry representatives that impede scientific collaboration for effective crisis response.

Distrust Impedes Collaboration

The essence of the cultural divide between academics and government decision makers lies in their differing systems of reward, time scales, and flows of information. The currency of academia is publications, whereas those who respond when disaster strikes value years of field experience. Scientists can spend several years conducting one study and getting it peer reviewed, whereas responders must make decisions, sometimes within the hour. Researchers are motivated by a spirit of scientific inquiry, whereas responders emphasize rapid and efficient decision making.

These two groups also hold different cultural norms around sharing information and transparency. Government responders often have their hands tied by legalities and potential financial liabilities, especially if a court case is likely. Academics are usually prohibited from sharing data before they are peer reviewed. Hence, the default for both groups is to hoard information but for very different reasons.

However, during DWH, both of these impediments were temporarily relaxed, in part, demonstrating an interest in working together. Scientists within agencies worked with their colleagues to share data publicly and reached out to editors of mainstream journals to relax publication criteria. Despite these exceptions, tensions continue, and a lack of common understanding about the objectives and priorities of both communities contributes to an underlying distrust that thwarts collaboration.

Bridging the cultural divide between agency decision makers and nongovernmental scientists can provide multiple additional benefits. When academics are exposed to disasters, they may see new opportunities to conduct research relevant to future disasters. Even more, research relevant to one type of disaster may translate to other types of disasters.

During our interviews, agency responders articulated entrenched narratives about the role academics play in crisis situations. “Academics are mostly just talking heads during a spill; they are clueless when it comes to informing a response in an on-the-ground situation,” noted one of our interviewees. Similarly, academics are frustrated with the cultural silos within government. One said, “It’s amazing to me that government responders came out of academia, but had no idea how to bring the knowledge we produce to bear during a crisis.” An “us versus them” narrative was consistently used to reinforce stereotypes and factions.

Nonetheless, we heard a sincere desire from all interviewees to find ways to nurture collaboration and achieve the common goal of making expedient and science-informed disaster decisions.

Building Relationships Before Disasters Strike

Incorporating scientific research and methods into decision making can improve government and industry decisions before and during a crisis of any type. But in order to accomplish this, we need to bridge the academic-government-industry cultural divides by forging relevant partnerships before incidents occur. We propose doing so through a cross-hazards, multidisciplinary network of scientific experts across the country linked to disaster preparedness and response decision makers.

Such a network—a “community of practice”—will create personal relationships, enhance colearning, foster norms, bolster communication, and provide the resources that are vital for active and sustained collaboration before and during disaster response. The network would build trust that effective teams need during crises, when time is short and action is demanded. Critically, this network would catalyze cross-hazard scientific learning and forge channels for scientific knowledge to flow between the academic community and disaster preparedness and response decision makers. Our proposed network—the Science Action Network (hereafter “the network”)—would promote these outcomes.

First, in disaster preparedness and response, there will always be scientific questions that are unique to that event’s time and place, as well as its social, ecological, and technical context. However, there are also scientific questions and methods that transcend specific disasters, such as which communities are affected and how we engage them effectively. The network would serve as a clearinghouse for general and specific crisis response research evidence.

Second, the network would facilitate the process of scientific exchange between academics and government decision makers to help them prepare for and respond to all types of disasters. For example, there are opportunities to streamline protocols or techniques for effectively communicating scientific issues to the press and public, systems of rapid peer review, trusted platforms for data sharing or disaster site access, and agreements around intellectual property rights and confidentiality of crisis data.

Bridging the Divide

The network would be composed of academic and professional scientists who would work with regional governmental planning and response bodies. Regional academic liaisons in each of 10 existing governmental response regions in the United States would forge new ties between university researchers and governmental agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. These new connections would ensure those agencies have streamlined and formalized access to relevant science before and during disasters.

On a national level, the network would help government agencies learn from various disasters by cross-pollinating relevant scientific discoveries and data and integrating science into decision making. Scientists in the network would benefit from new research collaborations, streamlined access to funding, and the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to communities.

In the case of the hypothetical oil spill off the coast of northern Alaska, the network would have already solidified relationships between responders and the local academic scientists with relevant expertise before the spill, building the trust to enable resource sharing and more effective collaboration and less confusing public communications during the crisis. As Admiral Thad Allen, the national incident commander for the Deepwater Horizon response, remarked, “A crisis is not the time to begin exchanging business cards.”

Deepwater Horizon catalyzed new relationships across regions, institutions, and disciplines. It generated and inspired excellent science and opened new channels for integrating scientific expertise and information into crisis response. The response also illuminated persistent fault lines between scientific communities and decision makers. As humans continue to increase the variability of weather and climate and society grows increasingly complex, we cannot afford to ignore these fault lines, especially where bridging them is quite feasible.

The Science Action Network would build the pathways we need to promote scientific collaboration before and during crises, increasing the effectiveness of disaster management in the face of complex unknowns that threaten our human communities and the resources on which we depend. We can no longer afford to isolate knowledge from action. Fortunately, those equipped with relevant scientific knowledge and those with the knowledge and authority to prepare and respond have the same goal: to make the right science-informed decisions.

—Lindley A. Mease, Center for Ocean Solutions, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.; email: [email protected]; Theodora Gibbs-Plessl, ChangeLabs, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.; and Jane Lubchenco, Department of Integrative Biology, Oregon State University, Corvallis

Citation: Mease, L. A., T. Gibbs-Plessl, and J. Lubchenco (2016), Call scientists before disaster strikes, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO042593. Published on 5 January 2016.

© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0