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.

The Academy report, based on the findings of a workshop that involved a range of experts, provides specific recommendations for best practices in the United States. Because analyses must be done immediately and often under hazardous conditions, quickly accessible funding (such as the RAPID program of the U.S. National Science Foundation) at the federal, state, and local levels could ensure that ephemeral data will be collected and findings delivered to decision-makers as needed. During a crisis, a central, curated clearing-house for data and scientific information can improve scientific collaboration, speed up analyses, and build public trust. Because first responders and scientists often bring very different perspectives, vocabularies, and needs to a disaster event, expanded joint training would allow these communities to work more effectively together.

The report recommends several policy reforms. State governments should appoint chief scientific officers to coordinate state-sponsored scientific activity and liaison with federal scientists and emergency response agencies. Modest modification of the Federal Advisory Committee Act would allow teams of federal and nonfederal scientists to collaborate more effectively during a crisis, while maintaining transparency and accountability.

In 2018, the United States experienced 14 weather and climate disasters with losses exceeding $1 billion each and a total of 247 lives lost. The summer wildfire season in the American West will soon again begin, followed by the start of the 2019 hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean. There will be new disasters and science will play a critical role, informing and guiding decisions governing disaster response and recovery. Science during a crisis must be as effective as possible. The academy report is a call to action.

  • * R.R.C. and G.E.M. chaired the committee of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that released the report “Science During Crisis: Best Practices, Research Needs, and Policy Priorities” (2019).


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