Envisioning disaster research

Profiles of Norwegian Science


Photo: Ilan Kelman
Flood heights are measured on the River Glomma at Elverum.

Agder, Norway

Norway is a world leader in many scientific areas, but one topic in which it could contribute much more is disaster research.

The work would cover disasters affecting Norway, other Nordic countries, and the world. Needed is an ambitious, non-disciplinary venture to attract top Nordic and international researchers for tackling the never-ending problems of why disasters happen and how to stop them.

This initiative is not just about the COVID-19 pandemic with its long-term, worldwide devastation alongside the usual story that we could have easily averted it if we had wanted to. Other global calamities waiting to strike include a huge solar flare knocking out most of our electricity and communication technologies and a flood basalt volcanic eruption that could spew lava to cover an area larger than Norway.

Disaster research must assist daily life as well. Extensive science demonstrates that small, local disasters usually have far more cumulative impacts than those dominating world headlines. The landslide blocking a mountain village’s only access road, the flood stopping children from attending school, or the storm damaging half a town’s buildings perpetuate the poverty, marginalization, and inequitable resource allocation causing such disasters in the first place.

How do we help so many people in so much trouble? How do we think ahead of the earthquake or hurricane when, each day, families are worried about getting enough food on the table or being assaulted when walking to work? These fundamental questions from Kirkenes to Kathmandu could be answered by a disaster research center in Norway.

The baseline is that we have the knowledge and experience to stop disasters. We know how to design buildings to withstand tornadoes and earthquakes, yet many locations do not. We know how to support health and education so that everyone can make positive choices for themselves, but still the same groups end up left behind. We know so much about stopping disasters that disaster researchers avoid the phrase “natural disaster,” opting for simply “disaster.”

Disasters do not come from nature and are not natural. They come from us not providing people with the resources, opportunities, and choices to help themselves.

Such a grandiose vision to help humanity deserves a grandiose title: Dealing with Disasters – A Center for Science, Policy, and Action. The principles are Leadership, Innovation, Fundamentals, and Excellence (LIFE) to connect with the world for embracing the knowledge and wisdom that humanity offers.

Three interlocking aims will achieve the principles:

1. To understand why disasters are created and stopped.

2. To determine how to best counter disaster creation.

3. To ensure that we stop disasters.

The focus is on human beings: our values, behavior, attitudes, and actions that generate catastrophe—and those that could halt it. The theory is already well-founded but should be pushed further and deeper by the center while investigating and comparing a range of examples from the local to the global.

And why stop on Earth? Disaster risk occurs for space travel and off-Earth living.

One big topic to integrate into “Dealing with Disasters” is climate change. Much climate-change work remains explicitly separated from the overlapping topics of health, sustainability, and pollution prevention. By enfolding climate change into disaster research, we would glean a much more comprehensive understanding of risks from the changes we wreak on the planet. It would also bolster Norway’s limited and lagging climate change science.

People are the foundation of any successful scientific institution. This center must proffer on-site opportunities for early career researchers supported by senior researchers. Simultaneously, it must strengthen and encourage early- to mid-career researchers around the world to stay in their own countries through regular, fruitful, online exchanges to mold the professional networks that shape careers.

Training and results should incorporate communication of many forms: written and oral publications in tandem with arts and across languages and cultures. Personnel must always produce world-class, cutting-edge science while disseminating it to and beyond scientists. An in-house professional communications team would be essential, in parallel with artists-in-residence, practitioners-in-residence, and politicians-in-residence.

Yet all good things must eventually end. Too many top-notch operations drift past their best-before date, struggling along without grace.

Any plan should append a fixed exit strategy and stick with it. One decade to the day that this center’s doors open will be its end-of-LIFE celebration, thanking all those who (it is hoped) achieved so much and changed the world for the better.

Because that, ultimately, is why we do science, especially disaster research: To help those who are hurting and, better, to avoid them hurting. And not really “them,” because “them” includes “us”—all of us.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 4, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at www.ilankelman.org and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.