Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction

Posted: July 15, 2014

Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) Response

Prepared by Scott Gabriel Knowles (Drexel University) and Kim Fortun (RPI)

2 July 2014

1. What are the key contributions that science has made over the past decade related to understanding and managing disaster risk? What are the gaps that science needs to address?


+In the physical sciences, advances in meteorological technique has made it possible to predict hurricanes with much greater specificity.  When advance warning systems are in place and functioning well, this means that evacuation orders will be backed up by reliable information—and ultimately that more people who should evacuate will evacuate ahead of a storm.

+Developments in social media makes it possible now for emergency managers and first responders to update disaster information in real time (in fires, floods, and other incidents), and to reach broader populations with warnings.

+Advances in remote sensing technology makes it more likely that technological disasters (chemical, radiation, pollution) may be monitored cheaply and effectively.

+Climate and associated sciences have sharpened predictions of sea risk, adverse weather events and other disaster risk factors.

+ Social scientists have advanced understanding of disaster vulnerability through characterization of the structural position of different social groups, of organizational readiness to deal with risk and disaster, and of governance capacity at different scales.

+ Social scientists have identified both failures and best practices of law, regulation and accountability at all stages of the disaster cycle. 

+ Social scientists have advanced conceptualization of “disaster” to accommodate a timeframe stretched to include conditions leading to disaster, and long, complex aftermaths, often implicating future generations.


+Meteorological and climate prediction science, despite major advances, still lacks adequate funding in order to do the calculations necessary to determine plausible impacts.

+Despite advances in techniques of prediction and warning, publics both in industrialized and non-industrialized countries often fail to follow warnings and evacuation orders.  More social science research is necessary to understand the nature of trust in communities when it comes to disaster preparedness and evacuation.

+Social science is still lacking in the area of explaining the role that the public can/should play as citizen experts—especially in monitoring industrial and other technological risks.

+Social science is still struggling to understand why “slow disasters” like climate change does not penetrate public opinion in many nations (especially the US) enough to shape aggressive policy responses.

+Further research to understand both failures and best practices of law, regulation and accountability at all stages of the disaster cycle is needed, recognizing different cultural contexts.

2. What are the key priority areas related to disaster risk reduction and resilience building that need to be incorporated into the post-2015 Framework on disaster risk reduction?

+There should be continued emphasis on vulnerable populations and divergent effects of disasters based on factors of race, income, nationality, gender, age, and ethnicity.
+There should be emphasis on disasters not as “fast” events with response and recovery phases—but also as slow and chronic events, where recovery will be extremely hard to measure—in other words environmental degradation, unsustainable land use, and technological risk-taking (chemicals, petroleum, radiation) should be scrutinized.

+Protocols on climate change, radiation and nuclear power, and disaster victim identification, and emergency management capacity should continue to be developed.

+There needs to be continual assessment of the numbers and training of people with different kinds of expertise needed to predict, prepared for, respond to and assesses disasters of different kinds.  Declining numbers of experts in hydrology have received international attention, for example.

3. How can science and technology support the definition, implementation and monitoring of the post-2015 Framework on disaster risk reduction?

+There should be continual integration of science, engineering, and social science research communities around areas of cross-cutting concern: vulnerability, climate change, pollution, infrastructure, and land use, for example.  This happens through publications, meetings, public events, and the preparation of shared documents, media, websites, and public interventions.

+There should be much greater involvement of vulnerable populations, and victims in the discussions of disaster science—victims bear witness to the impacts of rampant development and risk-taking in ways that harness moral authority and channel public opinion.

+Conflicts of interests are a persistent problem in disaster management, calling for vigilant critical analysis of forces shaping problem identification and response in disaster contexts.  WHO Director-General Margaret Chan has noted how pressure from industry and free trade agreements impacts public health initiatives, for example (Chan 2013). As such, it is critical to develop structures and processes for transparency and accountability, and training programs in disaster ethics.  Inclusive processes that include people from impacted populations, researchers from different disciplines, and other stakeholders also can also enhance disaster ethics. 


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Published: 07/15/2014