CLEMSON — A Clemson University faculty member is a coauthor of the newest publication from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences that offers insights and recommendations to increase the role of scientists in times of disaster.

Machlis poses in the field.

Gary Machlis is a former science adviser to the director of the U.S. National Park Service and University Professor of Environmental Sustainability at Clemson.
Image Credit: Clemson University

Gary Machlis, former science adviser to the director of the U.S. National Park Service and University Professor of Environmental Sustainability at Clemson, and coauthor Rita R. Colwell, former director of the National Science Foundation and Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, intend the report to aid in better individual and institutional decisions in times of crisis.

The publication, “Science During Crisis: Best Practices, Research Needs, and Policy Priorities,” sets forth a broad agenda that recognizes the range of expertise and the value of that knowledge to emergency managers, government leaders, policymakers, business owners and the public. Together, they can increase society’s ability to manage the risks and damages of crises that threaten lives and communities.

“Fateful decisions are an inevitable part of environmental crises,” Machlis said. “If in the short term we can identify best practices, initiate a research agenda and implement new policies, then we can realize the benefits of greater integration of the best of emergency management with the best of science in the long term.”

Machlis was in Washington, D.C., March 18-19 for the release of the report. While there, he briefed the White House science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier, leaders of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies, the staff of several Congressional committees and participated in the release of the report at the National Press Club.

The authors argue that major disasters are inevitable: earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, landslides and tornadoes will be among the challenges ahead. What’s not inevitable is the role that science should play to improve how crises are understood and addressed.

Scientific expertise should be a larger part of decision-making, communication and crisis management, and that will happen only if there is a collective effort toward that goal. According to Colwell, an inherent challenge to the use of science during crises is the array of disciplines — including biology, engineering, geochemistry, medicine, oceanography and physics — that relate to both natural and human-caused disasters.

“This report is a call to action for federal, state and local agencies — along with academic institutions, nongovernmental organizations and others — to increase the role of science in responding to disasters,” Colwell said. “The urgency here is not simply that we know disasters are coming but that we should expect them to be more frequent, costly and deadly in the future. The sooner we focus on what science can offer during crises and build that into our responses, the better prepared we can be.”

The report recognizes that advanced planning, full coordination and important conversations about codes of conduct need to be in place prior to a crisis, so that once disaster is under way, responders can focus on sharing information, enhancing safety and guiding recovery.

Machlis said this level of planning and coordination will be key in the years ahead for areas such as the Southeast that have been hit particularly hard recently by severe weather and flooding.

When Hurricane Florence ravaged the coast of the Carolinas in September 2018, it set at least 28 flood records, according to a report by the U.S. Geological Survey, which used preliminary data to show that 10 USGS stream gauges in South Carolina registered record water levels or “peaks of record.”

Less than three years earlier, in October 2015, the “thousand-year flood” in South Carolina saw catastrophic flooding in parts of the state when numerous rivers overflowed their banks, washing away roads, bridges, vehicles and residences, with at least 19 deaths in the Palmetto State attributed to the storm complex.

Making proven, effective use of science during the disaster, Clemson scientists and Cooperative Extension agents were in the fields with farmers across the state as soon as the following morning, working to mitigate the damage caused to the state’s $41.7 billion agriculture and forestry industries and helping help growers assess damage and chart a path forward.

Clemson Extension conducted a series of educational workshops throughout the state to help farmers navigate financial decisions following this storm. In keeping with the university’s land-grant mission, Extension and Clemson Public Service and Agriculture worked to provide unbiased, research-based information to help farmers improve yields in the coming years.

“We have seen examples of scientists who go beyond simply helping us better understand a disaster once it has happened,” Machlis said. “Scientists have proven that with the proper amount of coordination among individuals and institutions, they can make measurable differences in the midst of crisis events.”

Robert H. Jones, Clemson’s executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, the work of faculty members such as Machlis clearly reveals how much Clemson as an institution values the use of science in efforts related to sustainability and education. Jones said the university also provides strong support when it comes to the importance of science in shaping, understanding and affecting policy in times of disaster.

“As a land-grant institution, Clemson sees the use of science as one of its most effective tools in the many ways it serves the Southeast, the country and the world at large, especially in times of crisis,” Jones said. “These are issues of the greatest importance, and the work of our faculty across multiple disciplines through scientific research and discovery will guide us through inevitable disasters on the horizon.”

“Science During Crisis: Best Practices, Research Needs, and Policy Priorities” is part of the Academy’s multiyear, multifaceted, multidisciplinary Public Face of Science project, which is supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Rita Allen Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The project is dedicated to exploring the evolving relationship between scientists and the public. More information on this project is available at www.publicfaceofscience.org.

“While there has been considerable research on the role of science in predicting and preparing for disasters, there has been less attention given to the application of science during disasters,” said David W. Oxtoby, the president of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. “Our recommendations for science during crisis are for changes in practice and policy that build on how scientists can contribute to the essential work of the emergency management community.”