Wednesday, 2 May 2012

EGU Debate: The Role and Responsibilities of Geoscientists for Warning and Mitigation of Natural Disasters

Marco Dormino/UNDP
The European Geoscience Union’s General Assembly gathers over 11,000 people including students, academics, the media, those in industry and policy makers. Of these 11,000 there are a significant number of people working on various aspects of natural hazards, as seen in the broad range of talks and sessions in this division. Sessions focused on the physics and mechanics of a broad range of hazard events, forecasting and prediction, early warning tools, communication and geoethics and much more.

One session that took place was a ‘Great Debate’ on the role and responsibilities of geoscientists for warning and mitigation of natural disasters. The debate panel included representatives from insurance, academia and the EU Civil Protection Agency. This discussion was one that came up several times over my week, in various sessions, discussions and often over a glass or two of wine.

Many natural disasters can be prevented or the impacts significantly reduced, and geoscientists have a crucial role to play within this work. If geoscientists want to be most effective within this important field they must strengthen their communication skills, and think about how they can better ensure their knowledge and information is presented to the public, policy makers and politicians. But the question is not only how can it be presented, it is how can the information be presented well and effectively.

Communication to Local Stakeholders
It was frustrating, and at times very sad, to hear some of the comments in this debate. For example, a suggestion that geoscientists should make better use of open-source journals was put forward as a way to make sure our information gets through to the public. Whilst open-source is very helpful for many reasons, I don’t think that this is a solution at all to the great communication divide between scientists and the public. The language, format and style of scientific papers – be they open source or pay-to-access – is focused on communicating information to their peers. I have studied geology for over 10 years now and yet pick up many papers and struggle to understand what they are saying and how the research is relevant. Writing for open-source, or placing our technical papers on personal websites (which was also suggested) will give geoscientists access to more information. It will not, as is desperately needed, improve communication of this essential knowledge to other key stakeholders. We need to see a significant change in the mentality of scientists to incorporate, value and prize effective public engagement and outreach into their research projects. A paradigm shift from ‘come look at what we’re doing’ to ‘let us come to you and show you what we are doing’ is absolutely foundational to improved communication.

Barriers to Communication
(Adapted from Liverman, 2010 -
Geophysical Hazards:Minimizing Risk,
Maximizing Awareness [Ed. Tom Beer]) 
I believe we can increase the effectiveness of geoscientists’ contribution within disaster risk reduction (DRR) through a number of developments to geoscience courses. Whilst students are not by any means the only people working within DRR, we can help overcome some of the communication barriers (highlighted in the diagram to the left, adapted from Liverman, 2000) by changing the way graduates approach and enter into this work. Such developments include an overhaul of professional skills modules in undergraduate and postgraduate geoscience courses. These must include training in how to communicate to non-specialists or multi-disciplinary audiences, training in how to write a press release or general-interest article, and some basic teaching on issues such as community participation and sustainability.

Whilst I am not suggesting that these are the only steps that must be taken - they are important and will, I believe, enable those within the exciting field of geoscience to make a positive and greater contribution.