Science During Crisis: Best Practices, Research Needs, and Policy Priorities


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Rita R. Colwell and Gary E. Machlis
The Public Face of Science

From earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and landslides to oil spills, wildfires, and floods, major disasters place profound stresses on the ability of our society to respond quickly and effectively to safeguard lives, health, and property. Scientists from a broad range of disciplines are critical for mounting an effective response to such crises: their knowledge is essential for shaping and understanding the options available to crisis responders and for communicating that information to decision-makers. Yet while there has been considerable research on the role of science in predicting and preparing for disasters, less attention has been given to the application of science during disasters, including data collection, community engagement, and the integration of scientists into crisis response teams.

How, then, could the application of science during crisis be improved? In this report, Rita R. Colwell and Gary E. Machlis provide a clear, concise, and insightful analysis of the most pressing needs related to the practice of science during crisis, including new research directions, procedural changes, and policy reforms.

The report draws on a workshop held at the headquarters of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at which a diverse group of experts representing many fields gathered to share their knowledge and experience and to debate what changes are needed to better enable scientists to contribute to the understanding and resolution of disasters. I join Dr. Colwell and Dr. Machlis in thanking this distinguished group, particularly Dr. Kristin Ludwig, who cochaired the workshop at the American Academy. I also thank the American Academy staff who provided strong intellectual and logistical support for this project, especially John Randell, the John E. Bryson Director of Science, Engineering, and Technology Programs, and Alison Leaf, Hellman Fellow in Science and Technology Policy.

This report on science during crisis was produced under the auspices of the Academy’s Public Face of Science initiative, which is examining how public attitudes toward scientists are shaped and how science could be better applied to individual and institutional decision-making. I would like to express my appreciation to the foundations that have supported the project, including the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Rita Allen Foundation, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, as well as the many American Academy members and other experts who have contributed to its success.

Jonathan F. Fanton
President, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
December 2018