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Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions (2006)

Chapter: 5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research

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Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
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5
Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research

This chapter addresses the committee’s charge to examine challenges posed for the social science hazards and disaster research community due to the expectation that, like other relevant research community disciplines, it become a major partner in integrated research. Interdisciplinary research has been gaining prominence across all domains of science, engineering, and social sciences. The first section of this chapter draws from the literature on interdisciplinary research to discuss definitions, challenges, and factors in the success of interdisciplinary studies generally. The second section focuses on interdisciplinarity in hazards and disaster research, with particular reference to the social sciences. It emphasizes trends in research funding structures, the role of multidisciplinary research centers, and the importance of interdisciplinary research for addressing gaps in knowledge about hazards and disasters. The third section presents several exemplars of interdisciplinary research in this field and draws insights and lessons from them. The final section summarizes key findings and offers recommendations for supporting interdisciplinary research in the field.

DEFINITIONS

Various terms have been used to describe research that crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries. These include “interdisciplinary,” “multidisciplinary,” “trans-disciplinary,” and “cross-disciplinary.” The terms have

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
×

been used in multiple, confusing, and often conflicting ways. For example (Klein, 1990:55),

The popular term cross-disciplinary … has been used for several different purposes: to view one discipline from the perspective of another, rigid axiomatic control by one discipline, the solution of a problem with no intention of generating a new science or paradigm, new fields that develop between two or more disciplines, a generic adjective for six different categories of discipline-crossing activities, and a generic adjective for all activities involving interaction across disciplines.

Emerging consensus suggests that research can generally be characterized by the degree of interaction among disciplines. In order of increasing interaction, the spectrum ranges from “multidisciplinary” to “interdisciplinary” to “trans-disciplinary” research.

In “multidisciplinary” research, investigators representing different disciplines often work in parallel, rather than collaboratively (Klein, 1990:56):

“Multidisciplinarity” signifies the juxtaposition of disciplines. It is essentially additive, not integrative. Even in a common environment, educators, researchers, and practitioners still behave as disciplinarians with different perspectives their relationship may be mutual and cumulative but not interactive, for there is “no apparent connection,” no real cooperation or “explicit” relationships, and even, perhaps, a “questionable eclecticism.” The participating disciplines are neither changed nor enriched, and the lack of “a well-defined matrix” of interactions means disciplinary relationships are likely to be limited and “transitory.”

Indeed, Klein (1990) finds that most activities purported to be “interdisciplinary” are in actuality “multidisciplinary,” particularly research arising from problem-focused projects that intrinsically involve multiple disciplines. Multidisciplinary research in essence involves two or more disciplines, each making a separate contribution to the overall study (NRC, 2005).

“Interdisciplinary” research, in contrast, is often defined along the lines of referring to “integration of different methods and concepts through a cooperative effort by a team of investigators … [not referring simply to] the representation of different disciplines on a team nor to individuals who may ‘themselves’ incorporate different disciplines on a project themselves” (Rhoten, 2004:10). For example, a National Research Council (NRC) committee provided the following definition (Pellmar and Eisenberg, 2000:3):

Interdisciplinary research is a cooperative effort by a team of investigators, each expert in the use of different methods and concepts, who have joined in an organized program to attack a challenging problem. Ongoing communication and reexamination of postulates among team members promote broadening of concepts and enrichment of understanding.

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
×

Although each member is primarily responsible for the efforts in his or her own discipline, all share responsibility for the final product.

Most recently, the NRC’s Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research (NRC, 2005b:26) has conceptualized the term to refer not necessarily to the composition of a research team, but rather to the mode of investigation:

Interdisciplinary research (IDR) is a mode of research by teams or individuals that integrates information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or field of research practice.

This view emphasizes that true interdisciplinarity goes beyond involving two disciplines to create one product and is characterized by the synthesis of research ideas and methods. In some cases, particularly fruitful interdisciplinary efforts actually lead to the evolution of new disciplines, for example, neuroscience (Pellmar and Eisenberg, 2000:3).

The term “transdisciplinary” is distinct in referring to approaches that are “far more comprehensive in scope and vision [than interdisciplinary approaches]” (Klein, 1990:65). Examples of trans-disciplinary approaches include structuralism, Marxism, and policy sciences. Klein (1990) contrasts nondisciplinary versus disciplinary positions in the discourse:

The nondisciplinary position is more scornful of the disciplines. Visible in the call to overturn disciplinary hegemony, it has figured in propositions of “transdisciplinarity,” revisionist theories of “critical interdisciplinarity,” and the “integrative”/“interdisciplinary” distinction that emerged in education and the social sciences. The disciplinary position holds that disciplinary work is essential to good interdisciplinary work (Klein, 1990:106).

For hazards and disaster studies, it is useful to make several other distinctions. First, collaborative research within the social sciences differs from collaborative efforts by social scientists with natural scientists and engineers. Both are important for addressing knowledge gaps. However, the challenges of the latter are particularly great, as discussed in the next section. Basic research can also be distinguished from more applied types of studies (e.g., problem-focused, evaluation, impact assessment) in which interdisciplinary research tends to be more prominent.

For purposes of this report, the committee adopts the following positions with regard to defining interdisciplinary research within the social science hazards and disaster research community:

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
×
  • The term interdisciplinary is used as an umbrella term to represent efforts usually conducted by research teams that involve ideas and methods from more than one discipline.

  • There exists a spectrum of degrees of interdisciplinarity. These range from parallel efforts with a research team comprising different disciplines, to sequentially linked efforts where outputs of one disciplinary research effort provide inputs to another, to fundamentally integrated research where multiple disciplines interact in mutually transforming ways from problem definition through to research design and execution.

  • Research efforts across this spectrum are needed and appropriate to different types of problems.

  • Interdisciplinary research is particularly challenging when it crosses boundaries between the social sciences and the natural sciences and engineering.

CHALLENGES

Interdisciplinary research is challenging, and the potential of interdisciplinary research is often unrealized. “Across the spectrum of higher education, many initiatives deemed interdisciplinary are, in fact, merely reconfigurations of old studies—traditional modes of work patched together under a new label—rather than actual reconceptualizations and reorganizations or new research” (Rhoten, 2004:6). In the area of global environmental change, for example, there have been frequent calls for alliances between natural and social sciences but few successes (Stern et al., 1992).

The literature has identified numerous barriers to interdisciplinary research. These range from intellectual issues such as attitude and communication to organizational issues such as academic structure and funding mechanisms, for example (Pellmar and Eisenberg, 2000:4-5):

Disciplinary jargon and cultural differences among disciplines are serious problems. Surveys show concerns among researchers about perceptions of interdisciplinary science as second-rate…. There are concerns that training in interdisciplinary fields will not prepare graduates for a career. The explosion of information within each scientific discipline raises concerns about how long it would take to attain expertise in one, let alone two or more, fields…. Because publications and successful grants are essential for promotion and tenure, the concern that interdisciplinary research will reduce the likelihood of first-authorship and of funding presents an additional obstacle.

Some of the most commonly cited barriers to interdisciplinary research include lack of funding, indifference or hostility on the part of researchers, and incompatibility with academic incentive and reward structures. In a

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
×

recent study of interdisciplinary research centers and programs, Rhoten (2004:6) found that the latter may be most significant and perhaps even underestimated: “The transition to interdisciplinarity and consilience does not suffer from a lack of extrinsic attention at the ‘top’ or intrinsic motivation at the ‘bottom,’ but, rather, from a lack of systemic implementation in the ‘middle’” as universities have implemented piecemeal and incoherent policies rather than systematic reforms.

While systemic barriers may be most significant for research centers and programs, in individual studies, difficulties typically relate to the failure of a research team to function collaboratively. This failure may derive from causes ranging from individual researchers devaluing the contributions of other team members to inability of the group to bridge culture gaps. As an example of the latter, the NRC (2005b:54) Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research points to the culture gap between mechanical engineers and software engineers in some early robotics research: “To the first group, a robot with adequate sensors had little need for software; to the second group, an abundance of mechanical sensors was a sign of inadequate software.”

For hazards and disaster studies, the challenges of interdisciplinarity are compounded by additional hurdles. These relate to the marginal position of the social sciences relative to the natural science and engineering fields, perceptions of applied research, and attitudes toward mission-oriented research. Traditionally, hazard and disaster studies have been dominated by natural science and engineering fields. Public policy in the United States has emphasized scientific and technological “solutions” (e.g., earthquake prediction, earthquake engineering, flood control dams) to the hazards problem. Social science accounts for a small share of research funding, activity, and personnel in the hazards and disasters field generally; as noted in Chapter 9, there are approximately as many social scientists in the hazards and disasters field as there are volcanologists. This marginality means that when social scientists are involved in interdisciplinary research with scientists or engineers, their involvement typically resembles an after-thought or “add-on” to a primarily “scientific” or “technical” inquiry. This situation is changing, but it is still rare in collaborations with science or engineering for social science concerns and concepts to substantially shape the overarching research questions and approach (for an exception, see Box 5.1).

Additionally, hazards and disaster studies are commonly viewed as applied research aimed at “fixing problems” rather than basic science intended to advance knowledge. It is not uncommon for consultants to participate in these studies. The perception of applied research often marginalizes hazards and disaster research within the social sciences in relation to established academic disciplines, so that research is difficult to

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
×

BOX 5.1

Social Scientists’ Use of Engineers on Public Policy Research Projects

Local governments often adopt—or attempt to adopt—earthquake hazard mitigation policies that affect both future and existing buildings following events that damage their communities. These policy debates, decisions, or nondecisions usually pivot around highly technical engineering proposals that often have potentially significant impacts on building owners, especially those that own existing damaged buildings.

Social scientists must depend on earthquake engineering experts to interpret how the proposed policy measures could influence the ways that, at what cost, and over what period of time repair or retrofit measures for existing and standards for new buildings could affect owners, and through them, the adopters of such policies—locally elected officials.

Social scientists, in their studies of how such technically sound proposals can affect local politics, draw on earthquake engineers to characterize and interpret these proposals, which, when introduced into the local political system, may not go the way the engineering community desires. (See Olson and Olson, 1993; Olson et al., 1998, 1999.)

publish in mainstream disciplinary journals. The severity of this problem does vary across the social science disciplines. In geography, and to a lesser extent sociology and urban and regional planning, there are well-established traditions of hazards and disaster studies, and researchers in these areas have gained disciplinary prominence and intellectual influence. In other disciplines such as economics, psychology, anthropology, and political science, it is virtually impossible to publish hazards and disaster studies in mainstream journals. This constraint creates a substantial disincentive for researchers, particularly young scholars seeking tenure, to conduct research in this field. Consequently, the number of researchers in the field remains small (see Chapter 9).

Similarly, interdisciplinary journals, while widely read and influential within the hazards and disaster research community, are not well recognized by reviewers in mainstream disciplines. Consequently, they are given less weight than disciplinary journals by reviewers who make recommendations regarding tenure and promotion. Interdisciplinary journals include both traditional outlets such as the International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters and Risk Analysis, as well as new interdisciplinary journals such as Environmental Hazards and the Natural Hazards Review.

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
×

Moreover, many hazards and disaster studies involve funding or collaboration with agencies and organizations other than the National Science Foundation (NSF). Historically, organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), state emergency management agencies, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the insurance industry have supported social scientists conducting hazards and disaster research. As noted in Chapters 1 and 2 of this report, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has recently emerged as a major funding source for some types of disaster research. Studies not primarily supported by NSF are often viewed as “mission-oriented,” responding to the interests of mission agencies (e.g., terrorism) rather than to intellectual curiosity or other motivations of basic science. This circumstance further impedes publication and acceptance by mainstream academic disciplines.

FACTORS IN SUCCESS

These impediments can be overcome, and the accumulation of experience points to a number of factors that seem to be important in the success of interdisciplinary studies. These factors generally pertain to three dimensions of the research process: the research problem, the participants, and management. External support plays a role in each of these dimensions.

As noted by the NRC Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, trends toward more interdisciplinary research are driven, in part, by the complexity of natural and social phenomena and the need to address societal problems. Accordingly, that committee found that interdisciplinary research “works best when it responds to a problem or process that exceeds the reach of any single discipline or investigator” (NRC, 2005:53). Problem-oriented research thus appears to be favorable for interdisciplinary collaboration in that the value of different disciplines’ contributions and the need for integrative conceptualizations can be focused and driven by the complexity and demands of the societal problem itself.

Characteristics of the participants and research group also appear to be important. Experience from the National Laboratories, which routinely engage in interdisciplinary research, suggests that the first key to success is to “involve only people who find unraveling a complex transdisciplinary issue at least as important as their own discipline” (Wilbanks, in NRC, 2005:55-56). Interdisciplinary research and collaboration requires interpersonal skills beyond subject matter expertise in disciplinary methods (Pellmar and Eisenberg, 2000:43).

The size of the research team is also influential to some degree; studies have found that small groups (e.g., centers with less than 20 affiliates) that

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
×

have stable membership tend to be most successful at interdisciplinary integration (Klein, 1990; Rhoten, 2004). As far as research centers are concerned (Rhoten, 2004:9):

[I]nterdisciplinary centers need not only to be well-funded but to have an independent physical location and intellectual direction apart from traditional university departments. They should have clear and well-articulated organizing principles—be they problems, products, or projects—around which researchers can be chosen on the basis of their specific technical, methodological, or topical contributions, and to which the researchers are deeply committed. While a center should be established as a long-standing organizational body with continuity in management and leadership, its researchers should be appointed for flexible, intermittent but intensive short-term stays that are dictated by the scientific needs of projects rather than administrative mandates.

Much of the literature has focused on issues such as communication, leadership, rewards, and teamwork strategies that relate to project planning and management. For example, the NRC (2005b:18-19) found that “key conditions for effective [interdisciplinary research] … include sustained and intense communication, talented leadership, appropriate reward and incentive mechanisms (including career and financial rewards), adequate time, seed funding for initial exploration, and willingness to support risky research.”

Communication appears to be critical for overcoming disciplinary preconceptions where they may hinder interdisciplinary collaboration. It has been noted that effective teamwork requires that team members have trust in one another’s skills and expertise, which is difficult to evaluate when working with researchers from other disciplines. Good communication is thus essential for the process to succeed (Pellmar and Eisenberg, 2000:43). The experience of the National Laboratories suggests the importance of discouraging “disciplinary entitlements” wherein “something is accepted as truth because one discipline says so.” It also stresses the need to overcome disciplinary stereotypes, replacing them with personal relationships that require substantial time to cultivate (Wilbanks, in NRC, 2005:55-56).

The literature on organizational psychology suggests that one of the inherent dilemmas in multidisciplinary groups concerns the contradictory consequences of member diversity. Diversity can exist in underlying attributes such as (task-related) knowledge, skills, and abilities, as well as (relations-oriented) values, needs, attitudes, and personality characteristics. Diversity can also exist in readily detectable attributes such as (task-related) educational level, disciplinary degree, and team tenure, as well as (relations-oriented) gender, age, and ethnicity (Jackson et al., 1995). Team members are selected to staff a project on the basis of readily detectable task-related attributes (e.g., educational level, disciplinary degree) because these are

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
×

assumed to provide a valid indication of a person’s underlying task-related attributes (e.g., knowledge, skills, abilities). However, some readily detectable task-related attributes are associated with underlying relations-oriented attributes (i.e., disciplines vary in the prevalence of people with certain values, needs, attitudes, and personality characteristics), and some readily detectable relations-oriented attributes are stereotypically associated with underlying task-related attributes (e.g., ethnicity and gender, are thought to be correlated with certain skills and abilities such as mathematics).

These incidental differences and stereotypic beliefs can have a significant effect on the performance of interdisciplinary projects where members of different disciplinary subgroups must work together. An obvious problem is that people’s confidence in some stereotypes exceeds those stereotypes’ predictive validity. A more fundamental dilemma is that diversity in underlying task-related attributes is an essential ingredient in innovation, adaptation, and performance (Jackson et al., 1995). However, diversity in underlying relations-oriented attributes can create friction, reduce normative consensus and cohesiveness, and cause members to leave the group. The positive effects of diversity can be attained and its negative effects minimized by promoting communication of information, cooperation in task performance, a positive work climate, and team cohesiveness.

Leadership is a second aspect of project management that is important in facilitating interdisciplinary research (Pellmar and Eisenberg, 2000:43):

Interdisciplinary research teams need leaders who understand the challenges of group dynamics and who can establish and maintain an integrated program. Leaders need to have vision, creativity, and perseverance…. To coordinate the efforts of a diverse team requires credibility as a research scientist, skill in modulating strong personalities, the ability to draw out individual strengths, and skill in the use of group dynamics to blend individual strengths into a team.

Effective leaders should foster an organizational climate that is conducive to interdisciplinary research. Organizational climate affects organizational effectiveness by influencing the degree to which team members are motivated to contribute toward group goals. It includes dimensions of leadership climate (leader initiating structure, leader consideration, and leader communication), team climate (team coordination, team cohesion, team task orientation, and team pride), and role climate (role clarity, but not role conflict or role overload) (Lindell and Whitney, 1995; Lindell and Brandt, 2000).

Reward structures are also important in facilitating interdisciplinary research. In particular, research team members should “know that their reputations will be affected by the success or failure of the enterprise—that everybody’s name will be on the product” (Wilbanks, in NRC, 2005:55-56). Rewarding performance at the group level, rather than at the individual

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
×

level, is an effective means of promoting cooperative goals (Ellis and Fisher, 1994).

Finally, a number of teamwork strategies have been found to be effective in the context of interdisciplinary research. Clarity is important with respect to roles, expectations, and authority, especially in terms of sharing of data and resources (Pellmar and Eisenberg, 2000). Role clarification and role negotiation enable team members to assess their mutual needs and expectations while also clarifying differences in their methodologies and ideologies (Klein, 1990).

Iteration is another strategy that has proven especially useful. “Iteration allows authors to become readers and critics by going over each other’s work in order to achieve a coherent, common assessment” (Klein, 1990:190). The team leader can facilitate the interaction by acting as a synthesizer.

More generally, cooperation can be enhanced by interdependence among subgroups’ tasks. Task interdependence within a project can be characterized in one of three ways (Thompson, 1967). First, subgroups have sequential interdependence when the initiation of one subgroup’s task is dependent on the completion of another subgroup’s task. Second, subgroups have reciprocal interdependence when their outputs cycle iteratively until the team product reaches an acceptable state. Third, subgroups have pooled interdependence when both depend on the same resources. This last type of interdependence is important because organizational subgroups operating in parallel are usually assumed to be independent, but they actually have pooled interdependence because all depend indirectly on the success of the others for the continued survival of the project as a whole. Thus, the interdependence of organizational subgroups will be extremely obvious when it is reciprocal and also quite obvious when it is sequential. However, project managers may need to emphasize the existence of pooled interdependence when project members mistakenly assume that they are completely independent of others. One of the most important consequences of cooperation on the reciprocally and sequentially interdependent tasks characteristic of many interdisciplinary research projects is that sharing of information and ideas, especially constructive discussion of alternative views, leads to greater productivity (Tjosvold, 1995).

Another strategy is to collaboratively involve subject matter experts (SMEs) in project management. In multidisciplinary research projects, no single person or even small group of persons has all of the knowledge needed to plan and implement the project. Thus, setting project objectives, identifying and scheduling tasks, and estimating resource needs requires collaboration among SMEs who are knowledgeable about all of the distinct areas to be addressed by the project. Similarly, SMEs from all areas must collaborate in organizing project staff, monitoring task performance, and adjusting resources or objectives in response to deviations from plans.

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
×

Successful collaboration among SMEs from the different functional areas is sometimes accomplished by augmenting the project manager with a project management team that actively contributes to project decisions. On small projects, the project management team comprises all project members, whereas on very large projects the project management team might consist of representatives from each functional area. If the members of the project management team have not worked together previously, they must accomplish a number of social tasks at the same time they are attempting to plan and implement the project. That is, according to McIntyre and Salas (1995), members must perform teamwork in order to accomplish task work. Task work requires project staff to learn enough about each other’s subject matter to develop a shared mental model of the project (Morgan and Bowers, 1995). This shared mental model must contain all of the elements needed for the project plan—project objectives, task schedules, and resource requirements. In a large project, it probably will not be possible for anyone other than the most interdisciplinary project personnel to develop a fully comprehensive mental model of the project; in an extremely large, complex project it probably will not be possible for anyone to develop a fully comprehensive mental model. Instead, project staff with the broadest scientific knowledge will have a detailed understanding of their own subject matter areas and the ways in which their areas interconnect with closely related areas. In addition, they would have a general understanding of other disciplines that do not link directly to their own. For example, a multidisciplinary earthquake center would be expected to have close linkages of earth scientists with structural engineers, structural engineers with planners, and planners with social scientists.

Finally, the literature on organizations suggests that group cohesiveness can be achieved in a number of ways (Ellis and Fisher, 1994). The first is through formulation of cooperative goals. The goals of individual team members are cooperative when they are positively linked, competitive when they are negatively linked and independent when they are unrelated. One of the easiest ways to establish cooperative goals is to reward performance at the group level, not at the individual level. A second method of achieving cohesiveness is to emphasize external threats. In the case of multidisciplinary projects, the threat of project failure raises the potential for mutual negative career consequences. A third way to achieve cohesiveness is for the group to rapidly achieve some visible goals. This can be accomplished if the team sets some easily attainable short-term goals that will provide early success experiences. Finally, cohesiveness can be enhanced by shared experiences, especially collaborative responses to difficult challenges such as preparing for external reviews.

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
×

INTERDISCIPLINARY TRENDS IN SOCIAL SCIENCE HAZARDS AND DISASTER RESEARCH

The NRC Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research (2005b:2) identified four fundamental forces that are driving the growth of interdisciplinary research:

  1. the inherent complexity of nature and society,

  2. the desire to explore problems and questions that are not confined to a single discipline,

  3. the need to solve societal problems, and

  4. the power of new technologies.

While these forces have long been influential for social science hazards and disaster research, recent trends toward interdisciplinarity can be ascribed to more proximate drivers. It is especially important to recognize the influence of the National Science Foundation in terms of research funding criteria as well as the earthquake engineering research centers.

Research Funding Structure

Interdisciplinary research has been gaining increasing emphasis from funding organizations, including NSF. Perceptions that there is little research funding for interdisciplinary studies appear to be unfounded, at least in recent years. One study (Rhoten, 2004:7) reported that

[W]e have found substantial evidence of extrinsic attention to interdisciplinary research in the discourses and resources of government agencies, policymakers, scholarly associations, and university administrators…. Of the $4.11 billion that the NSF requested from Congress for research and related activities in 2004, $765 million—a 16.5percent increase over 2003—has been earmarked for four priority areas all designated as interdisciplinary [including] Human and Social Dynamics…. In addition, private dollars are also being poured into interdisciplinary endeavors at unprecedented levels.

Many observers believe that research funding for interdisciplinary studies is not only well established but also likely to continue growing. This trend derives from the juxtaposition of stable or declining national budgets for research with a political climate that demands research expenditures be justified on practical, tangible grounds (Hackett, 2000). Even observers who are ambivalent about the merits of interdisciplinary research advocate acknowledging and taking advantage of its growing prominence (Hackett, 2000:259):

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
×

Very little is known about such initiatives…. In light of all this ignorance and uncertainty, it is difficult to embrace interdisciplinary initiatives. Yet they may be a lasting instrument of science policy, and the one area of real growth and opportunity. Our best option, then, is to proceed boldly but reflectively, giving such investments our whole-hearted support while thinking critically and systematically about their performance and consequences.

Human-environment interactions broadly defined, including hazards and disasters, have been a focus of numerous interdisciplinary initiatives at NSF in recent years. Some examples include initiatives for studies on Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER), including urban LTER, several centers for climate study, biocomplexity, human dimensions of global change, and Human and Social Dynamics (HSD). The latter in particular identifies “Decision making and Risk” as one focal area, and requires that research teams include at least one social scientist. Some “centers of excellence” being established by DHS have been directed to conduct interdisciplinary research, sometimes requiring a fairly prominent role for the social sciences.

Earthquake Engineering Research Centers

For social science hazards and disaster research, another important driver in interdisciplinary studies, particular with science and engineering, has been the NSF-supported earthquake engineering research centers, a major NSF contribution under the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP).

When the National Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (NCEER) was funded through NSF’s Directorate for Engineering in 1986, the aim was to promote multidisciplinary team research that would provide a more comprehensive understanding of earthquake hazards and how to cope with them. This was quite a novel idea at the time because what NSF sought was nothing less than the creation of a program of integrated research that included the most talented investigators from the earth sciences, engineering, and the social sciences. The notion was that researchers from these different disciplines would not merely work in parallel, as NSF grantees sometimes did in research carried out in individual and small group projects, but collaboratively. It turned out that it was particularly difficult to get the social scientists integrated into the NCEER program in this fashion, at least until some of the researchers that made up the engineering leadership began accepting the NSF vision and actually became champions of it. It helped, too, that some outstanding social scientists became members of the NCEER team, demonstrating the importance of the social sciences in developing a truly comprehensive understanding of earthquake hazards—that it wasn’t just about building design and performance.

NSF funding for NCEER lasted 10 years. With broad backing from the

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
×

earthquake research community, NSF funded three new centers in 1997: the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center (PEER), the Mid-America Earthquake Center (MAE), and the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER), which replaced and built on NCEER. As before, NSF charged the three centers with the task of conducting interdisciplinary research that included the social sciences, something that the larger earthquake research community had come to accept at least in principle since it encouraged NSF to continue supporting center-based research. Implementing this charge has remained a challenge in many ways, however, even with a multidisciplinary NSF staff providing oversight for the centers program and with multidisciplinary review panels participating in the periodic assessments of progress. Based on presentations to the committee by center leaders, as well as social scientists knowledgeable about the centers (including funded participants and external reviewers), MCEER has come closest to meeting NSF’s expectations for collaborative research. Perhaps a greater commitment on the part of its leadership is one factor, while another might be that as the successor to NCEER, it simply has had more time to make progress in that area.

It is evident that although the NSF mandate has been influential, it has not been sufficient to catalyze effective interdisciplinary research. Other factors, such as leadership and the duration of contact among researchers, have also been necessary for the development of trust and respect across the disciplines.

Table 5.1 provides some indication of the growth in interdisciplinary research involving the social sciences in the centers context. The table compares evidence of social science involvement in research activity at NCEER (1986–1994) and MCEER (2001–2004). Data pertain to the disciplinary

TABLE 5.1 Percentage of Publications by Disciplines of Authors, NCEER and MCEER

Disciplinary Affiliations of Authors

NCEER

MCEER

Science/engineering only

92%

48%

Social science only

4%

22%

Both science/engineering and social science

4%

30%

Total

100%

100%

Total number of publications represented

26

27

Research years represented

1986-1994

2001-2004

Tabulated from NCEER Research Accomplishments 1986-1994 and MCEER Research Accomplishments 2001-2003 and Research Accomplishments 2003-2004. Available at http://mceer.buffalo.edu/publications/resaccom/default.asp.

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
×

affiliations of authors and coauthors on papers in the centers’ Research Accomplishments publications covering the years indicated. The increase in social science research at the centers, particularly in interdisciplinary research, is evident. For example, social scientists were (co-)authors on only 8 percent of the NCEER papers, but 52 percent of the MCEER papers.

Funding for social science research has been similar at each of the three current centers (MCEER, MAE, and PEER). On average, the social sciences account for approximately 15 percent of research funding, varying from year to year in the range of 13 to 19 percent. At least one of the centers has indicated to the committee that it will continue to increase the social science share due to pressures from NSF site reviews (Bruneau, 2004; Dobson, 2005; May, 2005). The centers are supported with $2 million annual funding from NSF as well as substantial funds from industry and other sources. The centers thus represent a major source of interdisciplinary research funding and a locus of interdisciplinary research activity in recent years.

Importance of Interdisciplinary Research

The increase in interdisciplinary studies in social science hazards and disaster research reflects a growing consensus within the field about the importance of research problems that cannot be addressed through disciplinary studies alone. There have been numerous calls for interdisciplinary research. For example, at a recent NSF workshop on Integrated Research in Risk Analysis and Decision Making in a Democratic Society, one of the major conclusions reached by participants was: “To advance the basic science and increase the utility of risk analysis and decision science, it is necessary to foster interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research that includes engineering, information sciences, natural sciences, and social sciences” (NSF, 2002:7).

This importance has also been cited with reference to the George E. Brown, Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES). At a cost of more than $80 million, NEES is a major new initiative in NSF’s support for research on earthquake hazards. The focus of NEES is on laboratory experimentation and computer-based simulation. However, an NRC (2003b:125) committee charged with developing a research agenda for NEES cited the importance of collaboration between “scientists and engineers who will develop and test new theories on earthquakes, earthquake damage, and its mitigation” and “social and political scientists who will use the science and technology from NEES to develop better risk assessment tools, loss estimation models, and communication and teaching strategies to help enact and implement more enlightened policies on earthquake loss mitigation.”

The need for interdisciplinary studies was also emphasized in the Earth-

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
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quake Engineering Research Institute’s (EERI) Research and Outreach Plan in earthquake engineering, a consensus document from the profession, which notes (EERI, 2003:29):

Many of the engineering and earth science research programs will benefit directly from [breakthrough technologies and opportunities identified in the Plan], but these efforts, by themselves, will not assure protection from loss. Translating knowledge to action continues to frustrate loss reduction efforts in this and other hazard mitigation efforts. A significant ground-breaking effort is also required to understand the underlying societal factors that contribute to vulnerability and inhibit efforts intended to reduce this vulnerability.

Recent advances in social science research hold particular promise in this regard. These include the challenging areas of risk perception and communication, societal inertia to change, decision making, effective fiscal instruments, and quantification of economic impacts. Consequently, a major component of this Plan is the complementary role of the social sciences, working in partnership with engineering and earth sciences, to achieve the goal of community resilience and protection from loss.

These calls for interdisciplinary research involving the natural sciences, engineering, and social sciences are not unique to the hazards and disaster field. Similar calls have been made in NRC and NSF reports on research agendas in environmental science. In environmental science, it is recognized that fundamental, disciplinary research in the natural sciences, social sciences, mathematics, and engineering is important and requires strengthening. At the same time, “present and future challenges include connecting across disciplines and scales, supporting synthesis studies and activities, more tightly linking science, technology, and decision making, and achieving predictive capability where possible” (Pfirman and AC-ERE, 2003:5). It has been noted that social science or human dimensions research, which supports as well as cuts across other scientific inquiry on global change, must involve both disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches (NRC, 1999a). Environmental synthesis is needed “to frame integrated interdisciplinary research questions and activities and to merge data, approaches, and ideas across spatial, temporal, and societal scales” (Pfirman and AC-ERE, 2003:1).

Interdisciplinary research, moreover, requires new types of research groups, capabilities, educational frameworks, and forms of support. The NRC (2001) committee on Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences found that no single discipline in environmental science could entirely capture how multiple driving variables affect environmental as well as human outcomes. It recommended new types of research teams and communities that can communicate and collaborate across the “gulf” that divides natural and social sciences. “These groups will require a large number of scientists

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
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with broad, interdisciplinary perspectives, as well as an increased capability for cross-disciplinary collaboration among environmental scientists, who may develop more interdisciplinary orientations as a result” (NRC, 2001:71).

To this end, one NSF report has stressed the importance of adaptability (Pfirman and AC-ERE, 2003:6):

In this new era, imagination, diversity, and the capacity to adapt quickly are essential qualities for both institutions and individuals. This places a premium on the quality and evolutionary capacity of environmental research and education. In turn, the richness and complexity of interdisciplinary environmental research is creating the opportunity for more immediate and broad-based application of the results to human systems and problems.

These issues and recommendations resonate with the research needs in hazards and disaster research.

Interdisciplinary Research Needs

In discussing needs for interdisciplinary research, it is useful to consider specific examples and how they transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries. To do this, the committee begins with priorities outlined in the EERI (2003) Research and Outreach Plan prepared with support from NSF. As a further illustration, a type of research that is important, but often overlooked—evaluation research—is considered. Finally, and most importantly, the committee discusses the role of interdisciplinarity in the research priorities identified from the overview of research progress, gaps, and opportunities in the field that are identified in Chapters 3 and 4.

As noted earlier, the EERI Research and Outreach Plan is a consensus document from the profession. It “provides a vision for the future of earthquake engineering research and outreach focused on security of the nation from the catastrophic effects of earthquakes” (EERI, 2003:5). Interdisciplinary collaboration is clearly needed to address several of the priority research tasks identified in the plan, including the following (EERI, 2003:38):

  • System level simulation and loss assessment tools—e.g., validation studies to calibrate the accuracy of loss estimation models, incorporating the full range of physical and societal impacts and losses for earthquake and other hazards;

  • Assessment of cost effectiveness of loss mitigation—e.g., definition of performance measures for lifelines and communities, comprehensive direct and indirect loss models, more in-depth demonstration studies (involving an integration of disciplinary approaches),

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
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and examination of nonlinear adaptive behavior in complex organizations;

  • Financial instruments to transfer risk—e.g., studies to assess the efficacy of alternative risk reduction or transfer methods, analysis of benefits and costs to various stakeholder groups, analysis of complementary roles of mitigation and insurance, and analysis of safeguards against insurance industry insolvency;

  • Advanced and emerging technologies for emergency response and effective recovery—e.g., real-time loss estimation tools, remote-sensing technologies for damage assessment, advanced decision-support systems for response and recovery, and advanced communication and networking systems for response and recovery

  • Methodologies and measurement of progress in reducing vulnerability and enhancing community resilience to earthquakes—e.g., risk management cost-effectiveness methodologies and analyses, investigation of societal impacts of catastrophic earthquakes, research on decision making and earthquake risk perceptions, and research on implementation of risk management and earthquake mitigation programs.

These research priorities call primarily for interdisciplinary collaboration between social scientists and researchers in the natural sciences and engineering, although a few (e.g., decision making, risk perception) would also involve interdisciplinary research within the social sciences.

Another example of needed research that is highly interdisciplinary is evaluation research. Evaluation is the systematic assessment of the value and worth of a program, policy, project, technology or some other object. The goal of evaluation research is to provide feedback on the appropriateness and effectiveness of the object of concern. Objects can be evaluated before they are implemented to aid in decision making about a range of alternatives or after they have been implemented to determine processes or impacts. Evaluation can help measure costs and benefits, implementation issues, outcomes, lessons learned, and effectiveness.

Most programs dealing with the reduction of losses from hazards are not evaluated on a systematic basis. For example, the nation’s oldest and largest mitigation program is the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). In its 30 years of existence, the NFIP’s effectiveness has never been evaluated (Mileti, 1999b). Most other major federal hazard reduction efforts have never been systematically evaluated, including the multiagency National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, FEMA’s National Dam Safety Program, or the Urban Search and Rescue Program. In the absence of program evaluation, it is difficult to understand if risk reduction efforts are effective (see Box 5.2).

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
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BOX 5.2

Required Periodic Evaluation of the Implementation of State and Local Plans Developed Pursuant to the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000

To remain eligible for several federal hazard mitigation and disaster assistance programs, the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 (DMA 2000) requires all state and local governments, including special districts and tribal governments, to prepare and have approved multihazard mitigation plans.

One of the planning steps (10) requires that the adopted plan be maintained, reviewed, and updated periodically. This can be accomplished through a Mitigation Coordinating Committee that includes all original and new participants. The plan is to be reviewed annually and updated and resubmitted for state and federal approval every five years.

Changes in jurisdictions’ vulnerabilities can be identified by noting (1) lessened vulnerability as a result of implementing mitigation actions, (2) increased vulnerability as a result of failed or ineffective mitigation actions, and (3) increased vulnerability as a result of new development (and/or annexations).

Of particular relevance to this committee’s charge is the role of interdisciplinary research in addressing research gaps that the committee has identified in assessing knowledge in the field. The research recommendations presented in Chapters 3 and 4 of this report are repeated in Table 5.2. The table also indicates the types of studies required to address each of these research needs—whether they be disciplinary (social science) studies, interdisciplinary studies involving collaborations within the social sciences, interdisciplinary studies involving social science collaborations with natural sciences and engineering, or some combination of these types. For each recommendation, the table also indicates which type is the primary research need.

Table 5.2 shows that for all of the priority research recommendations identified in Chapters 3 and 4, some degree of interdisciplinary inquiry will be necessary. Disciplinary research needs remain in the vast majority of the recommendations. However, in only 4 of the 19 recommendations are the key research needs disciplinary. The primary research need in 11 of the cases is interdisciplinary within the social sciences. In the remaining four recommendations, it involves collaboration with the natural sciences and engineering. The committee therefore concludes that although important disciplinary research needs remain, the trend toward more interdisciplinary research appears to be consistent with major research needs in the field. Rather than leaving behind important unanswered disciplinary questions,

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
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TABLE 5.2 Research Recommendations and Role of Interdisciplinary Studies1,2

 

Type(s) of Studies Needed

Recommendation

Disciplinary—Within a Single Social Science Discipline

Inter- disciplinary—Within Social Sciences

Interdisciplinary—Beyond Social Sciences3

3.1

Assess how event characteristics affect disaster impacts, mitigation, and preparedness

3.2

Refine concepts in hazard vulnerability analysis

 

3.3

Identify mechanisms to reduce vulnerability

 

3.4

Identify factors promoting mitigation adoption

 

3.5

Assess effectiveness of mitigation programs

3.6

Identify factors promoting emergency preparedness

 

3.7

Assess implementation of research findings

 

3.8

Identify factors promoting recovery preparedness

 

3.9

Develop models for decision making in emergencies

 

3.10

Conduct research on training and exercising for disaster response

 

3.11

Develop models of hazard adjustment adoption and implementation

 

3.12

Research on hazard insurance

 

4.1

Explore vulnerability and resilience

 

4.2

Compare impacts and responses across natural, technological, and willful events

4.3

Homeland security and disaster response

 

 

4.4

Update knowledge in light of demographic and other societal changes

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
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Type(s) of Studies Needed

Recommendation

Disciplinary—Within a Single Social Science Discipline

Inter- disciplinary—Within Social Sciences

Interdisciplinary—Beyond Social Sciences3

4.5

Research on events of high magnitude and scope

 

4.6

Cross-cultural research on hazards and disasters

4.7

Data archiving and data sharing (hazards and disaster informatics)

1. Recommendations on priority research needs identified in Chapters 3 and 4.

2. ● = type of research primarily needed, = type of research also needed.

3. “Beyond social sciences” = between social sciences and natural sciences and/or engineering.

this trend is necessary and should be encouraged. Moreover, the greatest needs are for interdisciplinary research of a type that is often overlooked—studies that integrate knowledge across various disciplines within the social sciences.

EXEMPLARS AND LESSONS

This section presents four successful examples of interdisciplinary research in hazards and disaster social science. These studies were selected by the committee to demonstrate various forms, advantages, and contributions of interdisciplinarity. They also provide specific insights into both the challenges faced by researchers engaging in interdisciplinary research and the key ingredients for overcoming these challenges.

The four studies summarized below represent different types of successful interdisciplinary research in social science hazards and disaster research. Three of these studies were supported to a large degree by NSF, primarily through NEHRP. In the first, a study of the economic impact of infrastructure failures in earthquake disasters, social scientists collaborated with engineers under the auspices of an NSF-supported earthquake engineering research center. In the second, a study of human casualties in earthquakes, social scientists and engineers collaborated through their own initiative, outside the context of centers. The third study, focusing on decision making for risk protection, represents a case of successful interdisciplinarity between

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
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different fields within the social sciences. In selecting the fourth example, sustainability science, the committee looked outside the traditional boundaries of hazards and disaster social science research to find an instructive example of successful interdisciplinary research.

What Is Successful Interdisciplinary Research?

In the growing literature on interdisciplinary research, surprisingly little has been written on assessment. By what criteria should interdisciplinary research be judged to be successful? According to one former NSF program officer (Hackett, 2000:258),

It is difficult to know whether interdisciplinary initiatives return fair value for the money invested, and it is difficult to measure their performance against that of traditional, disciplinary activities. Partly this is a problem of yardsticks and perspective, with metrics of any sort of science performance hard to come by and with sharp differences in perspectives on the fundamental merit of any sort of interdisciplinary effort.

According to the NRC Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, a successful interdisciplinary research program will produce outcomes that influence multiple fields and feed back into disciplinary research. It would also enhance research personnel, creating “researchers and students with an expanded research vocabulary and abilities in more than one discipline and with an enhanced understanding of the interconnectedness inherent in complex problems” (NRC, 2005:150).

For purposes of this report, the committee has adopted the following general indicators of successful interdisciplinary research:

  • It seeks to advance knowledge in ways not possible through traditional, disciplinary research (e.g., through questions addressed or methods used).

  • It involves substantive collaboration among a team of researchers with diverse expertise and training (including at least one social scientist).

  • It produces outcomes that are significant and influential.

While recognizing that interdisciplinary research can, in rare cases, be conducted by a single individual, the committee chooses to focus on the more typical cases involving a team of at least two researchers from different disciplines.

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
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Exemplar: Modeling How Infrastructure Failures Impact Urban Economies

Interdisciplinary research, particularly collaboration between social scientists and engineers, has been a continuing focus of the earthquake engineering research centers supported by NSF through NEHRP. As noted earlier, NCEER, particularly in the latter years of its 10-year existence, was a pioneer for involving social scientists as researchers and members of its leadership structure. The three earthquake engineering research centers (MCEER, MAE, and PEER) that succeeded it, which are approaching the end of their NSF-supported tenures, all engage social scientists in their research programs to varying degrees. Integrating research across the social sciences and engineering has proven challenging, however, even in the facilitating context of these centers. The learning curve has been steep, and success has been mixed.

One of the earliest cases of social scientists collaborating with engineers in the context of these centers has also been one of the most successful. Since the mid-1990s, researchers at NCEER and its direct successor MCEER have been developing increasingly sophisticated methods for assessing the social and economic losses caused by lifeline infrastructure failures in earthquakes. Lifelines such as electric power, water, and transportation systems provide critical services to every sector of society. Disasters have repeatedly shown that lifelines are highly vulnerable to damage and cause serious, wide-ranging impacts when they fail. Yet these broader impacts have not been considered in other loss estimation models, most notably FEMA’s HAZUS™ model.

Assessing the societal impacts of lifeline outages is an intrinsically interdisciplinary research problem. It requires addressing many, if not all, of the elements and interactions of the conceptual model of societal response to disasters presented in Chapters 1, 3, and 4 (see Figure 1.2), including linkages between pre-impact conditions of hazard exposure, physical vulnerability, and social vulnerability with conditions of the specific earthquake, pre-impact interventions, and post-impact responses. In the case of economic impacts of a water delivery system, for example, researchers must assess not only the extent of physical damage, but also the spatial pattern of water outage, restoration plans, and outage duration, the spatial and sectoral distribution of impacted businesses; and the sensitivity of business activity to water outage. To address this problem, the NCEER-MCEER research team brought together expertise in structural and systems engineering, urban planning, sociology, and economics.

Some of the advances made in this research can be regarded as contributions by individual researchers to their home disciplines. For example, engineers developed new methods for conducting network flow analysis

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
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under conditions of earthquake damage (Hwang et al., 1998). Sociologists conducted business surveys that greatly advanced knowledge of how businesses prepare for, respond to, and are affected by disasters. Economists developed new models for capturing the way businesses and economic sectors respond resiliently to disasters (Rose et al., 1997; Rose and Liao, 2005).

Each of these individual advances contributed to the integrative core of the project, a model that estimates not just physical damage to lifelines in earthquakes but also the consequent outages and economic impacts (Shinozuka et al., 1997, 1998; Chang et al., 2002). Integration consisted largely of sequential linkages. For example, systems engineering models produced maps of initial outage patterns. These outage maps were used in a restoration model to assess utility restoration over time. Outage and restoration data were integrated in a geographic information system (GIS) with spatial data on business locations to estimate economic activity at risk. Survey-based information on the differential vulnerability of various types of businesses was used to translate these estimates into expected loss outcomes. This collaboration provides an example of a type of interdisciplinary research in which the contributions of different disciplines are effectively and productively linked, without fundamentally transforming the nature of the research in each area.

The integrated model was developed as a simulation tool. This allowed characterization of uncertainty in the outcomes. It also enabled policy analysis through “what-if” exploration and comparison of intervention options ranging from pre-disaster structural mitigations to strategies for post-disaster restoration. The NCEER-MCEER model has been applied to case studies of electric power and water systems in Memphis, Tennessee, and Los Angeles, California. The original loss estimation framework has been expanded and refined to address community resilience to disasters (Bruneau et al., 2003; Chang and Shinozuka, 2004).

The degree of interdisciplinarity in this effort is evident in the research outcomes. The integrated model has been documented in numerous publications coauthored by engineers and social scientists. These include journal articles, conference presentations, center research reports, and a center monograph.

The more intangible successes of this interdisciplinary research are also noteworthy. The NCEER-MCEER lifelines project produced research personnel experienced in and committed to interdisciplinary inquiry. Building on the experience of the centers, several of the key researchers—engineers as well as social scientists, established as well as young investigators—pursued further interdisciplinary research outside the context of the Centers. In some cases, the same investigators continued working together, and in others, they formed new collaborative teams. The project also paved the

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
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way for the recent blossoming of a distinct literature on modeling the spatial economic impacts of disasters (e.g., Okuyama and Chang, 2004).

How, in this research example, were barriers to interdisciplinarity discussed earlier in this chapter overcome? Indeed, the research team did encounter barriers ranging from miscommunication to mistrust to perceived lack of academic rewards. It took several years, perhaps the better part of a decade, for productive collaborations to form.

Three factors proved essential to success: problem-focused collaboration, certain characteristics of the research team, and the center environment. The collaboration focused initially on a demonstration study for the Memphis electric power system, where NCEER engineering researchers had already made headway and were eager to extend their engineering loss results to measures of societal impact. Social scientists (primarily economists) were able to communicate and collaborate with the engineers by focusing on the specifics of the problem—for example, by understanding that for a given earthquake scenario, the engineering models simulated electric power outage by the utility’s service area and that these results could serve as linkages to economic impact models. The case study focus also provided a clear end goal for the collaboration: quantitative estimates of social and/or economic disruption resulting from power outage.

Characteristics of the research team, which evolved over time, were also crucial to success. The literature suggests that senior faculty may be best suited for interdisciplinary collaborations because they are able to “risk time out of the disciplinary mainstream” and, moreover, “often need new challenges” (Klein, 1990:182). This pattern applied in the NCEER-MCEER example, where a senior engineer (who served as Center director for a time) and a senior economist were mainstays of the effort. However, the project was only able to get off the ground through the efforts of other researchers who were able to serve as translators between engineering and economics. Key linkages were made by one junior researcher who had been formally trained in both areas.

Finally, the importance of the center environment in fostering this research cannot be underestimated. The literature on interdisciplinarity suggests the benefits of small groups with stable membership. In this case, the centers served as an incubator for an initially risky endeavor with little precedent in the field. It allowed the research team to evolve its membership and develop trust, interdisciplinary language, and collaborative practices over a period of several years.

The centers also provided important support for the endeavor. In addition to grant funding, this support included research infrastructure, such as the opportunity to publish in center technical reports, research accomplishment volumes, and monographs. Regular center meetings provided forums for researchers to meet and develop relationships with investigators from

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
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other disciplines. Frequent peer reviews of the centers by NSF panels, which consistently sought evidence of collaboration between engineers and social scientists, also provided immediate and important impetus to the interdisciplinary research. For example, the lifeline project was showcased in several NSF site reviews of the centers.

It is fair to say that this research would not have occurred or succeeded—certainly not in its initial stages—without the supportive and facilitative center environment.

Exemplar: Analyzing Casualties Through a Standardized Framework

After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, a number of researchers in Southern California were funded to study injuries in that earthquake (Shoaf et al., 1998, 2001; Park et al., 2001; Seligson and Shoaf, 2002; Seligson et al., 2002; Peek-Asa et al., 2003). The group included researchers at University of California, Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services (LAC-DHS), and the California Department of Health Services. Furthermore, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) had funded a major risk-consulting firm in Southern California to gather data on many aspects of the earthquake, including fatalities and injuries. The funding for these studies came from numerous sources, including NSF, and had different requirements. Since the senior researchers from the public health sector were all well acquainted, they made a conscious decision to meet to ensure the consistency of their methodologies and definitions of injury. One of the senior researchers at UCLA was also involved in the hazards and disasters community and invited researchers from the consulting firm to attend the meeting. The meeting included two sets of researchers from UCLA, researchers from LAC-DHS, and researchers from the consulting firm. Each of the research teams consisted of a senior researcher and at least one advanced doctoral student or junior researcher who served as project manager.

As the research on the Northridge earthquake evolved, the teams agreed on consistent terminology and methodology for the collection of data. As research continued, it was carried out primarily by junior researchers. This group of junior researchers included two injury epidemiologists, a public health educator, and an earthquake engineer. As the data collection came to an end and analysis began, this multidisciplinary team of researchers began to look at analysis and the usefulness of the complete data set collected for improving casualty estimation. The earthquake engineer had special expertise in loss estimation modeling. A proposal was submitted to NSF to utilize this unique data set to improve casualty estimation modeling. The public health educator and earthquake engineer served as coprincipal investigators on the project.

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
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The research project, funded by NSF, culminated in a standardized data classification scheme for earthquake-related casualties (Shoaf et al., 2002). This classification scheme was unique in that it attempted to include standards for data that were in the domain of the engineers and geosciences (hazard characteristics and building characteristics) as well as those in the domain of public health and the medical sciences (sociodemographic characteristics and injury characteristics). This process led the earthquake engineer and the public health educator to see themselves as translators. The earthquake engineer would translate technical information from the engineering and geoscience communities into language that the public health educator could translate back to the epidemiology and medical communities, and vice versa. Ongoing collaboration between the public health educator and the engineer has resulted in a number of studies on earthquake casualties, as well as the development of casualty models for other hazards including flooding and a number of terrorism scenarios (Peek-Asa et al., 2001).

Factors influencing the success of this interdisciplinary association included characteristics of the team, mentorship of senior researchers, and the focused nature of the research. While the literature suggests that senior researchers are more likely to be successful in interdisciplinary projects, the success of this team was primarily the result of the junior researchers. Perhaps because public health is in itself an interdisciplinary field, the public health educator has been able to succeed in the field of public health while conducting research almost exclusively on disasters in an interdisciplinary fashion. Furthermore, the engineer engaged on this team had worked extensively in loss estimation and not exclusively in structural engineering. As young researchers, this team developed a new discipline in which, over the decade, they have become leaders in the field.

The effect of the fact that researchers from a variety of fields had been calling for this type of research cannot be overlooked in the success of this team. Early in the research on the Northridge earthquake, members of this Northridge research team participated in a meeting of the U.S. Interdisciplinary Working Group on Earthquake Casualties. Participating in this working group, which had been meeting since the 1980s, lent credibility to the new research being done by this research team and encouraged it to continue the efforts begun by a number of other, more established researchers in the field.

Exemplar: Understanding Decision Making for Risk Protection

Knowledge of hazards and disasters has also been advanced by research that crosses disciplinary boundaries within the social sciences. One of the most successful examples concerns a long-standing collaboration between an economist, Howard Kunreuther, and a psychologist, Paul Slovic.

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
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Through work spanning three decades, they have individually and jointly made major contributions to understanding how individuals perceive risk, manage risk, and make decisions regarding insurance and other forms of risk protection, and the implications for public policy (Slovic et al., 1974; Kunreuther and Slovic, 1978, 1996; Kunreuther et al., 1978, 1998; Slovic, 2000; Flynn et al., 2001). Their initial collaboration was supported by NSF through the Directorate of Research Applied to National Needs; much of their later collaborative research was also supported by NSF, some of it through NEHRP.

This collaboration was initially catalyzed by regular meetings of the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center (established in 1976 at the University of Colorado at Boulder) and the encouragement of its founder, Gilbert White. As Slovic (2000:xxi) recalls,

In 1970, I was introduced to Gilbert White, who asked if the studies on decision making under risk that [another collaborator] and I had been doing could provide insights into some of the puzzling behaviors he had observed in the domain of human response to natural hazards. Much to our embarrassment, we realized that our laboratory studies had been too narrowly focused on choices among simple gambles to tell us much about risk taking behavior in the flood plain or on the earthquake fault.

Questions from White’s pioneering work on risk perception of flood hazard, such as why people who live in dangerous areas always return to live there after a disaster, or whether it was true that people react differently to risk if consequences are immediate as opposed to delayed, intrigued the psychologist and induced him to begin working on applied research problems. Discussions with the economist, Kunreuther, led initially to an influential overview paper (Slovic et al., 1974) that introduced recent research in psychology, including the work of A. Tversky and D. Kahneman (who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002), and made linkages to the hazards and disasters field.

A few years later, Kunreuther began an NSF project on individual decision making for insurance and invited Slovic to participate on the team. The project, documented in Disaster Insurance Protection (Kunreuther and Slovic, 1978), involved an unusual blend of laboratory experimental work with field study. The field study included an extensive telephone survey of more than 3,000 insured and uninsured homeowners in floodplains and earthquake zones across the United States. Collaboration occurred throughout the project; for example, the economist and psychologist worked together to design the survey and jointly pilot-tested the questionnaire in person in neighborhoods of San Francisco. The laboratory experiments, led by the psychologist and closely advised by the economist, were designed to complement the survey. For instance, the survey found that homeowners

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
×

had poor knowledge of the hazard and generally took little action to mitigate their risk. Laboratory findings suggested an explanation: “that people refuse to attend to or worry about events whose probability is below some threshold,” where the threshold could vary between individuals and between situations (Kunreuther et al., 1978:236). Results further showed that people did not perceive insurance in the ways that economists had assumed. The study found, for instance, that people insured not against low-probability, high-consequence events, but against high-probability, low-consequence events—in effect viewing insurance as a form of investment (Slovic, 2005).

This early interdisciplinary collaboration appears to have played an important role in the careers of these influential researchers. Slovic, in particular, credits his early experiences in natural hazards research with expanding his horizons beyond the “usual narrow path” of the experimental psychologist, in particular, sensitizing him to “risks in the real world.” This led him to study technological risk, an issue of great currency in the 1970s, and to focus on issues of risk perception, whereas in his laboratory work, he had been more interested in issues of risk taking. This led to productive collaborations with a number of other researchers, work on risk and decision making in a societal context, and more than 50 papers on risk perception (Slovic, 2005).

A number of factors appear to have been significant in the success of this case. First, and arguably most important, is the involvement of researchers “who find unraveling a complex transdisciplinary issue at least as important as their own discipline” (Wilbanks in NRC, 2005). Curiosity and open-mindedness appear, along with a proclivity for intellectual collaboration, to have been important drivers. It may have helped that Slovic was working outside a university environment. A second factor was the problem-focused nature of the research. The complexity of the applied problem—that is, how people behave in the face of natural hazards and how they make decisions concerning insurance—demanded an interdisciplinary approach. It is also significant that the researchers placed high value on “integrating descriptive and prescriptive elements” in their research, insisting on both advancing knowledge and providing guidance for policy (Slovic, 2005). Third, the Natural Hazards Center at Boulder, the mentorship of Gilbert White, and grant support from NSF all appear to have provided crucial support in both tangible and intangible forms.

Exemplar: Sustainability Science

Instructive experiences can also be found in fields allied with hazards and disaster studies. The case of “sustainability science” demonstrates the possibility, processes, and challenges associated with developing fundamen-

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
×

tally interdisciplinary conceptual frameworks and research agendas that cross boundaries between the natural and social sciences. This example is especially apt because of the prominence of “sustainability” as a vision in the recent Second Assessment of research in the hazards and disaster field, wherein sustainability “means that a locality can tolerate—and overcome—damage, diminished productivity, and reduced quality of life from an extreme event without significant outside assistance” (Mileti, 1999b:4).

The idea of sustainable development emerged in the 1980s originating from multidisciplinary scientific perspectives on the interactions and interdependencies between society and the environment. The concept gained political traction and broader acceptance through two important and influential endeavors, both supported by the United Nations—the Brundtland Commission report (WCED, 1987), and the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and its Agenda 21 report (UNCED, 1992).

For the past two decades the international science plan for global environmental change was largely based on getting the correct scientific understanding of the interactions between the geosphere and biosphere as they influence climate change and other perturbations. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) process initially focused on scientific questions, but within the past decade, the emphasis has shifted toward understanding the societal responses to climate change. One milestone in this transition from a purely natural science to an integrated natural science-social science perspective was the publication of the NRC report Our Common Journey (NRC, 1999b). Then-president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Bruce Alberts, “saw in the idea of a sustainability transition the great challenge of the coming century and consistently urged the board to explore and articulate how the science and technology enterprise could provide the knowledge and know-how to help enable that transition” (NRC, 1999b:xiv). Funded with foundation support (rather than by federal agencies asking for advice), and a strong personal interest and leadership from the National Academies, this report lays out a research agenda for “sustainability science” (NRC 1999b:11):

  1. Develop a research framework that integrates global and local perspectives to shape a “place-based” understanding of the interactions between environment and society.

  2. Initiate focused research programs on a small set of understudied questions that are central to a deeper understanding of interactions between society and the environment.

  3. Promote better utilization of existing tools and processes for linking knowledge to action in pursuit of a transition to sustainability.

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
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Many of the members of the original Board on Sustainable Development (and others who participated in the workshops) had known one another for a long time and shared similar philosophical and intellectual predilections (Turner, 2005). Their work and interaction continued beyond the publication of the NRC report, especially in the promotion of scientific research in sustainability (Kates et al., 2001). When the U.S. Global Change Research Program wanted to explore some of the themes in more detail, they went to this group of scholars (William C. Clark, Robert Kates, Pamela Matson, Robert Corell, and Billie L. Turner, among others). With National Science Foundation support (with contributions from NOAA and NASA), an interdisciplinary group began meeting to discuss the conceptual and methodological development of sustainability science. The entire group met annually for a period of three years, with side conversations and work done at the participating institutions—Clark, Stanford, and Harvard universities and the Stockholm Environment Institute. The intensive summer annual workshops were a “must go.” From these workshops, the initial result was a series of published articles in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2003 that articulated both the conceptualization of the field and exemplars of how to implement them at various scales (Cash et al., 2003; Clark and Dickson, 2003; Kates and Parris, 2003; Parris and Kates, 2003; Turner et al., 2003a,b).

The success of the interdisciplinary research collaboration has been fostered by personal relationships among key participants, a common scholarly view of the need for better understanding of nature-society interactions, keen personal interest from leaders of the scientific establishment (NAS and the American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS]) and outside political forces (societal needs identified by the United Nations and others). The most significant outcomes to date have been in the conceptual development of the field, but the actual implementation of the science agenda has not happened in any meaningful way. The barrier has and continues to be funding. When sympathetic program managers left the primary mission agencies (NASA and NOAA) that were funding such work, funding languished. Despite this, sustainability science (as an integrated and interdisciplinary field of study) continues to enjoy strong intellectual support from the leadership of the scientific community (Raven, 2002).

Lessons for Successful Interdisciplinary Research

These four exemplars were selected to represent different types of interdisciplinary research. In reviewing factors leading to their success, however, a number of commonalities emerge:

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
×
  • Support from senior leaders. All four exemplars cite this factor, whether in the form of personal commitment to the interdisciplinary inquiry from senior researchers who were themselves involved in the research, mentoring and encouraging of junior researchers to collaborate, or personal interest from leaders of the scientific community.

  • Financial support from granting agencies. All four cases were supported by NSF, as well as other sources. In some cases, the grant funding catalyzed the collaboration, while, in others it enabled in-depth empirical studies to follow on conceptual discussions of interdisciplinary frameworks. Although difficult to verify, it appears that without this financial support, none of the collaborations would have flourished for long or, in some cases, materialized at all. In one case, as previously noted, research progress was impeded when funding was lost because sympathetic program officers left the supporting funding agencies.

  • Forum for continuous dialogue. In three of the cases, an institutional meeting ground (either a multidisciplinary center or a series of formal meetings) appears to have been important for fostering, if not also initiating, the intellectual dialogue across disciplines. This seems to have been particularly important when collaborators did not already have long-standing personal relationships, particularly where social scientists needed to establish new collaborations with natural scientists and engineers.

  • Focus on an applied problem. The three exemplars from the hazards and disaster field all noted that focus on an applied problem greatly facilitated interdisciplinary research. The complexity of the societal problem exceeded the bounds of any traditional discipline and required an interdisciplinary approach. Moreover, the problem focus provided clarity and specificity regarding the nature of the interdisciplinary knowledge needed.

A number of other common factors in success are also apparent, to a somewhat lesser degree, across the cases. Although each case cited “characteristics of the research team,” somewhat different characteristics were noted for each. They included junior researchers who could serve as interdisciplinary links or translators, long-standing personal relationships between the collaborators, and open rather than discipline-bound intellectual perspectives. Three of the cases involved at least one key participant from outside a university setting, which may have reduced the academic institutional barriers to collaboration that are often cited in the literature. Two of the cases noted the importance of external calls from the scientific community for interdisciplinary research on the specific problem. These

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
×

factors appear to be important in some circumstances, but they do not appear to be as robust explanations as the ones listed above. The cases profiled here corroborate many of the findings summarized earlier from the larger literature on interdisciplinary research.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Interdisciplinarity in hazards and disaster research is growing. Interdisciplinary research, both within and beyond the social sciences, has made major contributions to the field. Interdisciplinarity figures prominently in the research needs of the field. While unanswered disciplinary questions remain, all of the priority research needs identified by the committee (see Chapters 3 and 4) involve multiple disciplines and are in part, if not fundamentally, interdisciplinary.

Research centers have proven to be very important in facilitating interdisciplinary research, as demonstrated in the hazards field and reinforced by recommendations in related fields. A workshop on integrated research in risk analysis and decision making yielded a consensus recommendation that “the most effective way to achieve program goals is to fund multidisciplinary centers.” (NSF, 2002:7) In the area of human dimensions of global environmental change, centers have been advocated in order to strengthen key linkages between the natural and social sciences (Stern et al., 1992).

The committee makes three recommendations regarding interdisciplinary hazards and disaster research.

Recommendation 5.1: As NSF funding for the three earthquake engineering research centers (EERCs) draws to a close, NSF should institute mechanisms to sustain the momentum that has been achieved in interdisciplinary hazards and disaster research.

In 2007, the three EERCs will come to the end of their 10-year terms of NSF support. At the same time, the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES), at a cost of more than $80 million, will soon dominate the landscape of NSF-supported hazards research. Both of these changes threaten the momentum that has developed with regard to social science involvement in interdisciplinary hazards and disaster research. Within the EERCs, a necessary condition for the fostering of social science research and interdisciplinary collaborations was the sustained pressure from annual NSF site review teams. As the EERCs “graduate” to self-sustaining financing structures and seek support from the private sector, it is likely that the role of social science research will be diminished. At risk are the valuable lessons, experience, and momentum developed over the last two decades.

Within NEES, because of its emphasis on laboratory testing of physical structures, opportunities for social science involvement appear to be very

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
×

limited. While the NEES research agenda cites the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration with the social sciences, none of the specific recommendations within that research agenda reflect this importance (NRC, 2003b). Within NEES, the Grand Challenges program, which funds research on “compelling national research” problems that require a “comprehensive systems approach” and “in-depth, cross-disciplinary, and multi-organizational investigation” (http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2005/nsf05527/nsf05527.htm), provides the most likely context for social science involvement. However, the NEES program has not funded any Grand Challenges research projects to date.

Recommendation 5.2: The hazards and disaster research community should take advantage of current, unique opportunities to study the conditions, conduct, and contributions of interdisciplinary research itself.

Social science expertise on subjects ranging from individual decision making to organizational effectiveness and evaluation research should be utilized to study interdisciplinary research in the hazards and disaster field. One opportunity consists of research on NEES; for example, to investigate how a spatially distributed network structure influences the research enterprise and to evaluate the effectiveness of such a structure. A second opportunity is the impending “graduation” of the earthquake engineering research centers from NSF funding to industry and other forms of financial support: for example, to study how this change affects the role of interdisciplinary research generally and interdisciplinary research involving the social sciences, in particular; to study centers and how they do or do not work effectively; and to systematically investigate team building in hazards research. A third opportunity would be to make similar comparisons between research supported by NEHRP and that supported by the Department of Homeland Security.

Recommendation 5.3: NSF should support the establishment of a National Center for Social Science Research on Hazards and Disasters.

In such a center, the committee envisions a distributed consortium of researchers and research units across the United States, with affiliated members located across the world. Similarly to NEES, it would take advantage of telecommunications technology to link spatially distributed data repositories, facilities, and researchers. It would provide an institutionalized, integrative forum for social science research on hazards and disasters, much as the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC) does for the earthquake earth sciences community. The key charges of the center would include

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
×
  • facilitating access to and use of disaster data;

  • coordinating post-disaster reconnaissance efforts of social scientists;

  • providing consensus statements from the research community to inform public policy;

  • providing educational materials (i.e., integrating existing materials, developing new ones, and disseminating both), such as Web-based short courses, that can help disseminate social science research findings to a broad range of audiences, including students, investigators new to the field, potential collaborators in other disciplines, and researchers in developing countries;

  • supporting researchers in developing the expertise they need to successfully engage in interdisciplinary research—for example, through doctoral and post-doctoral opportunities, sabbaticals, career development awards, or formal training (see Pellmar and Eisenberg, 2000:11; for an example, see www.nianet.org); and

  • catalyzing interdisciplinary collaborations, both within the social sciences and between the social sciences and natural sciences and/or engineering; for example, through convening workshops and symposia.

Core nodes of the network would include existing university-based research centers that are focused on hazards and disaster research (see Chapter 8), those DHS centers of excellence that involve social science research (e.g., the National Center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism), and the new centers recommended by this committee—the Data Center for Social Science Research on Hazards and Disasters (see Chapter 4) and the Center for Modeling, Simulation, and Visualization of Hazards and Disasters (see Chapter 7). However, individual researchers not associated with these existing centers would also have access to this distributed network.

The center would receive core funding from NSF and mission agencies such as DHS, NOAA, and NASA. It would leverage these funds to attract support from state and local governments, as well as international agencies and the private and not-for-profit sectors.

Such a center arrangement would provide several important benefits for social science research on hazards and disasters. First, it would provide a “critical mass” research network. The field is small, characterized by a modest number of core researchers, spread over many disciplines and many institutions, and bolstered by others who are only intermittently involved in hazards research (see Chapter 9). Achieving a critical mass is important for attracting and retaining researchers, as well as catalyzing interdisciplinary collaborations (see, for instance the first and third exemplars above).

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
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Second, such a center would elevate the stature of the field. This would enable social scientists to negotiate interdisciplinary, collaborative research agendas with their natural science and engineering counterparts on coequal footing. This could lead, for example, to interdisciplinary collaborations on hazards and disasters that address fundamental dynamics of social change (see Chapter 2). Such research has not been possible in the context of the EERCs, where social scientists comprise a small minority and research agendas have been set predominantly by engineers. The envisioned center would allow social science insights and concerns to influence, rather than simply extend, priorities in natural science and engineering research for the ultimate goal of making society safer.

Third, such a center would provide needed international leadership. The benefits of critical mass and stature noted above could be especially important in other countries, where social science research on hazards and disasters is often poorly established. Moreover, the benefits of an international network also extend to U.S. researchers, particularly in promoting collaborative research on the linkages between disasters and development (see Chapter 6).

Suggested Citation:"5 Interdisciplinary Hazards and Disaster Research." National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.
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Social science research conducted since the late 1970's has contributed greatly to society's ability to mitigate and adapt to natural, technological, and willful disasters. However, as evidenced by Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, and other recent events, hazards and disaster research and its application could be improved greatly. In particular, more studies should be pursued that compare how the characteristics of different types of events--including predictability, forewarning, magnitude, and duration of impact--affect societal vulnerability and response. This book includes more than thirty recommendations for the hazards and disaster community.

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