The Use of Science in Humanitarian Emergencies and Disasters

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Lord Ashdown published his Humanitarian Emergency Response Review in March 2011, and the Government responded in June of that year. The Government response made two key science policy commitments: to improve the use of science in predicting and preparing for disasters, and to work with others to find new ways of acting quickly in ”slow onset” disasters to stop them becoming major emergencies.

Andrew Mitchell, the Secretary of State for International Development, asked Sir John Beddington, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) to improve the Government’s use of science in both predicting and preparing for disasters, drawing on the Chief Scientific Advisers' network across government. In addressing this request, the GCSA commissioned two pieces of work. The first is this report, and the second is a Foresight report looking ahead 20-30 years to examine the future causes and impacts of disasters.

This report is primarily focused on government, and changes to the way government plans and prepares for international humanitarian emergencies.

There are three main recommendations which can be implemented relatively quickly to make a real difference to improve the way that government currently uses science advice. Two new expert groups are proposed. The first will provide systematic advice to Ministers on emerging international risks and the uncertainties in assessing those risks. The second will meet when an international emergency occurs and will provide a prognosis for the “reasonable worst case”, based on scientific advice. A further recommendation proposes the establishment of a list of experts who can provide advice on specific hazards when an emergency occurs.

The remaining recommendations look further forward and reflect additional evidence gathered during the preparation of the report. Specifically, the fourth recommendation proposes enhancements to existing cross cutting research coordination mechanisms in order to provide better engagement between disciplines, and between UK science researchers and users. The fifth recommendation is to develop the evidence base for action in response to early warnings from risk assessments. The final recommendation is to consider the possible benefits in a greater partnership between the public and private sectors to improve the developing, sharing and using of data to prepare for and predict humanitarian disasters.

These recommendations will provide stimulus and support to the excellent work already undertaken in collaboration between Government and the humanitarian disasters community. Taken together, they should make significant further improvements to the way science advice is used by the community.