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The goal of the UN’s third conference on disaster risk reduction, which starts tomorrow in Sendai, Japan, is to agree new guidelines for how nations can reduce the devastation caused by tsunamis, earthquakes and other disasters. The ten-year Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), an international agreement that has guided these activities for the past decade, is due to be replaced by these guidelines, which are informally called HFA2. This may even be legally binding, depending on the result of negotiations in Sendai.

Science plays a pivotal role in managing disaster risk. SciDev.Net has reported on numerous technological advances over the years, which the treaty will have to account for. For example, there are new ways of estimating risks to nations and warning people about approaching tsunamis.

Mark Pelling sits on the scientific steering panel of the Integrated Research into Disaster Risk (IRDR) programme that advises the UN consultations involved in refining HFA2. SciDev.Net caught up with Pelling before he flew to Sendai for the negotiations.

It’s been ten years since the Hyogo framework was agreed. What’s changed about how science works with disaster risk reduction?

Science has evolved quite a lot in the last ten years, not just in terms of the quality of modelling and observations in social science, but also the integration of different scientific fields. Physical and social science are coming together, and there is a desire for a closer connection between science and policy.

The other difference is the scale of data that’s around now. There are implications not just for monitoring hazards, but human behaviour too. So that involves rethinking the way we monitor IT infrastructure for improved understanding of decision-making, as well as human vulnerability depending on where people live.

Do the officials involved in the revised agreement appreciate this new understanding of the role of science?

The biggest challenge is to communicate this to the NGO community, which sees science as a bit of an add-on, perhaps even a bit of a luxury. So part of our task has been to talk to that community about the importance of science, and this has required explaining the range of activities that form science. You have, for example, scientific observation and modelling. But then you have more hybrid approaches. If we want to understand people’s behaviour around risk, we have to look at scientific knowledge together with local and indigenous experience. That’s good for the humanitarian sector, because they’re all about learning from experience.

What does it mean, in practice, for disaster risk science to be more integrated?

The International Council for Science (ICSU) funds the IRDR programme, which was established in 2008 to bring together different scientific fields to help promote risk reduction work and synthesise the science that’s out there. The desire for integrated science comes from a recognition that there is a lot of work in the physical and engineering sciences that connects through to risk management, but there’s also a lot of work in the social and behavioural sciences that tends not to. As the global organising body for science, ICSU saw that as an opportunity to step in and help.

For example, while disaster early warning has benefited hugely from advances in hazard modelling, future gains are likely to come from social science helping to improve the communication of warnings and from using science to identify vulnerable populations and target early warning systems at them.

How will this different understanding of science work in practical terms, once HFA2 is agreed?

One way is in the draft text to guide governments on a set of priorities for action. If this text is agreed in Sendai, it will establish relationships that governments have signed up to support. One of these is with science, using it to help lower disaster risks and advance evidence-based policymaking. The draft agreement also encourages nations to strengthen risk reduction through education, training and skills, which obviously link to science.

The other line of influence would be helping to shape and monitor a set of indicators for progress on the goals in the new agreement. And finally, a softer influencing approach would be for scientists to help policymakers and practitioners determine the practical implications of the HFA2 in their national contexts.

Can you say more about how this soft approach would work?

Once we get beyond the signing of the treaty, all of this risk reduction work is up to governments to deliver — the treaty itself only offers guidance on how they should act. At that stage, I think there will be opportunities for groups like IRDR to act as a point of reference for governments on how to use science. The challenge is to find mechanisms to engage this support.

Are there enough sources of expertise for governments to turn to for disaster science advice?

If a country wanted to develop its policy on risk management, then IRDR would certainly be happy to be consulted on that. But there is a tension, in that there is quite a reliance on scientists providing voluntary input. This makes it difficult to prioritise such work set against the competing demands of funded research, teaching and administration. It often feels as though the final mile for academics — connecting their expertise to policy — is the most difficult to achieve. To address this, we are trying to stimulate the creation of centres of excellence in established universities that have a track record in this field, and bring them along as contact points for their own governments to consult on these matters.

Q&As are edited for length and clarity.