Evidence informs, but only when it is understood

30 November 2012

Reducing Risk report

The Government Office for Science (GO Science) launched its eagerly awaited Foresight Report on Tuesday 27th November entitled “Reducing Risk for Future Disasters” looking towards shoring up communities – urban and rural – for scenarios anticipated up to 2040. Its focus was primarily on developing countries. It will influence much of the thinking of scientists in the UK working on these aspects – humanitarians, international development researchers and policy makers, as well as scientists of course. At the launch, Sir John Beddington, Chief Scientific Adviser, highlighted the impact disasters would have on urban and elderly populations in the future.

The DSA (Development Studies Association, an AcSS Learned Society member) and ELRHA (Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance) along with other partners helped to convene two workshops that fed into the findings and predictions of the report. These two workshops – one on “Tolerating the Right Kinds of Uncertainty” and the second on “Measuring Real impact” brought together world renowned climate scientists from the Met Office Hadley Centre, UK universities and overseas; humanitarians; impact specialists and research funding councils – so both thinkers and doers. What was very apparent was not just the importance of the complex scientific messages themselves but how to translate these complex messages into a language, format and context for vulnerable communities to be able to act on.

And this is where the social sciences have a crucial role.

Without an understanding of local context, language, how communities interact and work together, how people respond to livelihood threats, who are the trusted messengers within their community, how communities interpret changes in their environment and how they perceive risk, the empirical and well researched science will fall on deaf ears. If this is the case the science will not save lives or livelihoods. This might seem blindingly obvious to social scientists, but it is not so well acknowledged amongst the physical, natural and medical sciences – and this has to change.

When is information not information? When it is not understood.

The key to enabling messages to be understood – however complex – is also to understand how people receive these messages, interpret them and make decisions based on these messages. This process is not necessarily rational. It is generally known that many people, when presented with the message to evacuate, do not. Why? On what do they base their decisions not to do so as the lava flows towards their house? This is not something that climate scientists, vulcanolagists and seismologists work on. So they need to work alongside those who do – the social and behavioural scientists.

There is still a real gulf between the physical sciences and the social sciences around these issues. It is getting better but there needs to be much more in the way of collaborative research partnerships between the two communities of researchers when it comes down to saving people’s lives.

The messages are so very important that we must have a more holistic approach to humanitarian and development work in order to benefit vulnerable communities, build their resilience to hazards, shocks, disasters – whatever you want to call them – events that devastate their lives and livelihoods. We cannot leave it to narrow disciplinary silos forged in the Northern hemisphere to decide what is best for lives at risk.

Sir John calls for greater collaboration in the Foresight report at a number of levels – international, regional, national and local. I would also call for greater collaboration between the social and physical sciences to bring about real impact and lasting change in this important area.

Frances Hill is Executive Director of the Development Studies Association (DSA – www.devstud.org.uk) and Research Partnerships Manager at Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance (ELRHA – www.elrha.org)