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Milk, Bread, Researchers: Stocking Up On Disaster Experts

Disaster research is important. But who is going to do it?

September 11. The Gulf oil spill. Earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. The 2004 tsunami. Given the stakes involved, you would think that research into hazards and disasters (H&D) would be teeming with hordes of young scholars, trying to improve our understanding of how people prepare for (and respond to) catastrophic events. And you’d be wrong. That’s why senior scholars in the field are trying to cultivate the next generation of H&D researchers.

Disasters, whether natural or manmade, are complex events. Understanding how people, governments and societies prepare and respond to them helps us establish good public policy. Without that understanding, mistakes get made. For example, in the wake of 9/11, people in the Department of Homeland Security with little H&D expertise found themselves in charge of disaster preparedness and response. The notoriously mismanaged response to Hurricane Katrina demonstrated that lack of knowledge, and its associated errors in policy, planning and organization at multiple levels.

That is why scholarship in the H&D field is important – it is essential to identifying and implementing best practices for preparation and recovery. “If we don’t study these issues, we won’t learn from our mistakes,” says Dr. Tom Birkland, an H&D researcher at NC State. “We’ll rebuild our communities in the exact same way, with the exact same vulnerabilities.”

Unfortunately, Birkland notes, existing experts in the field are “getting close to retirement. We need well-trained experts to apply existing knowledge to major disasters like Katrina and September 11.” (You don’t have to take Birkland’s word for it, the National Research Council reported similar findings in 2006).

And Birkland is doing something about it. He was chosen by the National Science Foundation to head the third iteration of a national project to help identify and foster the next generation of H&D researchers. This project, which is currently wrapping up after three years, paired 17 junior faculty members from universities around the country with established mentors in the H&D field. The mentors provide insights on issues ranging from finding research funding to fostering interdisciplinary research collaborations.

“The hope is that the junior scholars who participated in this program will go on to become leaders in this field, and share what they’ve learned with others,” Birkland says. “The effect hopefully goes beyond the 17 scholars we worked with on this project.” We have reason to be optimistic. Birkland himself was a junior scholar in the first iteration of the project, run out of Texas A&M by Dr. Dennis Wenger from 1996-1998.

So hopefully, when something really bad happens 20 years from now, there will be a talented group of researchers ready to study it.