This report, conducted with support from the National Science Foundation, assesses the current state of social science hazards and disaster research and provides a set of recommendations that reflect opportunities and challenges in the field. Although research to date has revealed much about how societies respond to natural and technological disasters of various types, it is clear from the following report that we need to learn more. Among the most needed types of research are studies that compare systematically the unique circumstances of catastrophic events such as major earthquakes, hurricanes, and acts of terrorism. Such comparative studies will allow researchers to examine societal response in relation to variables such as the amount of advanced warning, the magnitude, scope, and duration of impacts, and the special requirements for dealing with chemical, biological, and radiological agents. Among the report’s other recommendations is the need for systematic studies of how societies complement expected and sometimes planned responses with improvised activities. In the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, for example, first responders had to work around the loss of New York City’s Emergency Operations Center, which was located in one of the towers.
The committee’s primary mission is to provide NSF and other stakeholders with a detailed appraisal of the short- and long-term challenges facing social science hazards and disaster research, and also new and emerging opportunities for advancing knowledge within the social sciences and through interdisciplinary collaborations with the natural sciences and engineering. Of central importance to its statement of task, the committee is charged with examining the contributions and accomplishments of the social sciences since the establishment of NEHRP in 1977, the program that through NSF has provided much of the support for social science research on hazards and disasters for more than 25 years. The committee is also charged with assessing the impact of key societal changes on the way social science hazards and disaster research will be carried out in the future and what should be studied nationally and internationally. Finally, in the context of these societal changes, the committee is charged with considering the special challenges of post-disaster investigations, advancing the application of research findings, and meeting future social science workforce needs in this field. In completing the above mission and tasks, the committee has drawn on the experience and expertise of its 13 members, the voluminous social science research literature on hazards and disasters, and information and insights from two workshops that were held during the course of the study.