Creating resilient communities needs more than good science

Natural disasters test our resilience


By Professor David Johnston

New Zealand’s hazard and disaster researchers are recognised throughout the world for their expertise in many fields. Our scientists are called on to advise governments and agencies globally and New Zealand’s disaster risk management policy and practices are frequently mentioned in international forums and form the basis for similar plans in other countries.

However, the need for good science remains paramount. Recent experiences, such as the Canterbury earthquakes, floods in many parts of the country and a range of other natural events have shown we still have much to learn about the risks we face. There is also a real need to find better ways to put knowledge into practice to improve New Zealand’s resilience.

This year, countries have been co-operating to link disaster management, climate change response and human development activities in a more holistic and coordinated way. New Zealand played a significant role at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDR) in Sendai, Japan where 187 countries adopted the far-reaching Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030.

The framework calls on science to support the understanding of disaster risk and to promote risk-informed decision-making and planning from the local communities to the global level. As such, the global scientific and technological community called for a greater contribution from science in a number of key areas.

Firstly, we need to better coordinate existing networks and scientific research institutions at all levels. For example, much council-funded research in a specific area can have a wider application. We need more evidence to support the implementation of emergency management and risk-reduction activities. Many programmes, for example, limit peer-review to the design and implementation phase with no formal evaluation of their effectiveness.

We also need to continue to deepen our understanding of how risk evolves over time. The conference called for actionable research that is useful, usable and used. Policymakers and practitioners need to co-design and co-produce research that both informs evidence-based practice but importantly supports practice-informed evidence.

At risk-communities and their citizens need to be empowered and supported to have a more active role in the science that informs risk management. Several existing Citizen Science projects testify to the value of active participation of the community in research about disaster risk and its management.

Citizen Science (also known as crowd science, crowd-sourced science, civic science, or networked science) supports and enables the public in becoming active participants in scientific research rather than being just observers and/or recipients.

This participation involves both the physical and social sciences and includes citizens reporting felt earthquakes, photographing floods and king-tides and the collection tsunami awareness data.

This is just a start and more can be done in this space. Risk literacy also needs to be promoted in school curricula, professional training and should be part of life-long learning across all groups of our society. Good science is, and will always, remain important, but good science needs the support and participation of a whole society.

David Johnston is Professor of Disaster Management from Massey University’s School of Psychology



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