In the News

Science during crisis

Rita R. Colwell and Gary E. Machlis

In April 1902, on the Caribbean island of Martinique, La Commission sur le Vulcan convened to make a fateful decision. Mt. Pelée was sending smoke aloft and spreading ash across the capital city of Saint-Pierre. Comprising physicians, pharmacists, and science teachers, the commission debated the danger of an eruption and the burden of evacuation, and judged the safety of the city's population to be “absolutely assured.” Weeks later, Mt. Pelée erupted and approximately 30,000 residents died within minutes, leaving only two survivors. Environmental crises require pivotal decisions, and such decisions need timely, credible scientific information and science-based advice. This requirement is the focus of a report released last month by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, calling attention to improvements in the operation and delivery of science during crises.

“…science will play a critical role…guiding decisions governing disaster response and recovery.”

Science has provided essential data and insight during disaster responses in the United States, including the World Trade Center attack (2001), Deepwater Horizon oil spill (2010), Hurricane Sandy (2012), and the Zika virus epidemic (2016). The context of scientific work done during such major disasters differs from that of routine science in several ways. Conditions change rapidly—wildfires spread swiftly, hurricanes intensify within hours, and aftershocks render buildings unsafe. In such scenarios, scientists must respond within tightly constrained time frames to collect data, do analyses, and provide findings that normally would involve months or years of work. Decision-makers need actionable information (such as risk assessments or mitigation techniques), yet scientific information is only one of many inputs to disaster response. Because communication networks may be severely disrupted, as occurred in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria (2017), delivery of science becomes even more difficult.

Thus, science during crisis involves specialized actions such as heightened attention to coupled human-natural systems and cascading consequences. Important responses include rapid establishment of interdisciplinary scientific teams, local knowledge quickly integrated into scientific work, clear and compelling visualization of results, and concise communication to decision-makers, disaster-response specialists, and the public.

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