Q&A: Using Science to Reduce Disaster Risk

Mark Pelling is part of the scientific steering panel of the Integrated Research into Disaster Risk program that advises the UN consultations for developing HFA2, the informal name for the replacement guidelines to the Hyogo Framework for Action. Pelling sat down with SciDev.Net to answer a few questions. Here is an excerpt from that interview (for the full interview, see link below.)

It’s been ten years since the Hyogo framework was agreed. What’s changed about how science works with disaster risk reduction?

Pelling: Science has evolved quite a lot in the last ten years, not just in terms of the quality of modelling and observations in social science, but also the integration of different scientific fields. Physical and social science are coming together, and there is a desire for a closer connection between science and policy.

The other difference is the scale of data that’s around now. There are implications not just for monitoring hazards, but human behaviour too. So that involves rethinking the way we monitor IT infrastructure for improved understanding of decision-making, as well as human vulnerability depending on where people live.

Do the officials involved in the revised agreement appreciate this new understanding of the role of science?

Pelling: The biggest challenge is to communicate this to the NGO community, which sees science as a bit of an add-on, perhaps even a bit of a luxury. So part of our task has been to talk to that community about the importance of science, and this has required explaining the range of activities that form science. You have, for example, scientific observation and modelling. But then you have more hybrid approaches. If we want to understand people’s behaviour around risk, we have to look at scientific knowledge together with local and indigenous experience. That’s good for the humanitarian sector, because they’re all about learning from experience.

What does it mean, in practice, for disaster risk science to be more integrated?

Pelling: The International Council for Science (ICSU) funds the IRDR programme, which was established in 2008 to bring together different scientific fields to help promote risk reduction work and synthesise the science that’s out there. The desire for integrated science comes from a recognition that there is a lot of work in the physical and engineering sciences that connects through to risk management, but there’s also a lot of work in the social and behavioural sciences that tends not to. As the global organising body for science, ICSU saw that as an opportunity to step in and help.

Are there enough sources of expertise for governments to turn to for disaster science advice?

Pelling: If a country wanted to develop its policy on risk management, then IRDR would certainly be happy to be consulted on that. But there is a tension, in that there is quite a reliance on scientists providing voluntary input. This makes it difficult to prioritise such work set against the competing demands of funded research, teaching and administration. It often feels as though the final mile for academics — connecting their expertise to policy — is the most difficult to achieve. To address this, we are trying to stimulate the creation of centres of excellence in established universities that have a track record in this field, and bring them along as contact points for their own governments to consult on these matters.


For the rest of the interview, click here: http://www.scidev.net/global/disasters/feature/integrating-science-disaster-risk-vulnerable.html

For more on the Sendai conference, which ends today, click here: http://www.wcdrr.org/home