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  • Guidelines show how to integrate science in development

Image credit: U.S. Department of Defence

Speed read

  • The guide offers five steps for humanitarian workers to follow

  • For example, it says practitioners need training to be able to assess science

  • At present there is little money to pay for such education

New guidelines aim to help humanitarian practitioners integrate sciences they may know little about into their work, and to lessen the confusion over using science in development practice, especially in resilience to disasters.  

The set of guidelines, which were published as a report in January, were showcased at a Royal Society event ‘Science for disaster risk reduction — an academic exercise?’ in London, United Kingdom,  this month (14 February).

They elaborate on a set of five steps for successfully integrating science into efforts to prevent natural disasters that were drafted by British scientists, advisors and NGO practitioners from institutions including University College London, the British Geological Survey, CAFOD, Christian Aid and the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences.

They focus specifically on the expertise that usually lies outside the humanitarian and development approaches and take practitioners through a five step approach, including checklists and real-life case studies, to “finding, understanding and applying science”.

The first step is to define the problem, objectives and questions to ask scientists. Second, NGOs should build partnerships with scientific organisations so they can access their expertise, and, third, invest in training so they can evaluate how trustworthy and representative the scientific information they deal with is.

Fourth, scientists and development practitioners should agree on common ethical and accountability values with the community they are working on, before applying scientific information and methods.

And, finally, the impact of the science integration on the target community should be measured from the start of the project.

Alongside the guidelines are case studies of successful integration of science and development practice for disasters. For example, it cites Caritas Bangladesh and the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology’s work to monitor soil salinity and test a solar-powered water purification system.

Better integration

Similarly, it highlights a citizen science project in Malawi, where people manage their own rain gauges to help with drought management and data collection.

Kate Crowley, one of the authors of the guidelines, and disaster risk reduction advisor at CAFOD, tells SciDev.Net that NGO practitioners could be trained to gather data while they carry out their normal tasks on the ground.

Practitioners could also learn how to determine the credibility and uncertainty of the science they use in their work, and how to interpret scientific papers.

But she warns that there is little if any funding for such education, especially for practitioners.

“It is a real shame,” she says. “We really need that funding at the local level to help our staff to understand what those data mean.”

Mark Pelling, a geographer at King’s College London, United Kingdom, says the way science is used to engage with people in countries at risk of natural disasters is starting to change, becoming more pragmatic and more directly connected to local stakeholders.

But more must be done to understand the processes that shape vulnerability, such as people’s access to resources or their ability to confront a specific hazard, he says.

Science should be better embedded within organisations that are seeking to reduce risks, he says. “That requires a kind of reconfiguration of what science is, to accept, perhaps, a less rigorous methodology, but being interested in the process of generating knowledge with people at risk, decision-makers and risk managers.

“There is an acceptance that this is as valuable as the really serious traditional science of hazard management and science,” Pelling says.

But not everyone agrees. The Royal Society meeting where the guidelines were presented heard that scientists who decide to work as practitioners in the field still often return to see such valuable experiences not being valued as part of their academic career progression.   

Link to Integrating science into humanitarian and development planning and practice to enhance community resilience

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