Expertise Under Pressure: Disaster Response

21 April 2020


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

In the context of a disaster response, what type of knowledge and evidence should inform emergency responses? How should uncertainty be factored into decisions made under pressure? When seeking expert advice during a crisis, what constitutes an expert?

Earlier this year, a group of academics, including early career researchers, and practitioners gathered at the University of Cambridge’s Magdalene College for a workshop hosted by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) to tackle these questions as part of a CRASSH initiative on disaster response, which seeks to study knowledge domains and information flows in crisis contexts. This work is part of a larger project on expertise under pressure, which explores the role of experts in understanding social change.

When responding to hazards, researchers throughout the day emphasized that cycles of panic and neglect are not useful. Successful disaster response is dependent upon preparation, and the knowledge gained from past disaster responses can help people prepare for future events. While a combination of risk, vulnerability and hazards contribute to the onset of disasters, Dr Hannah Baker emphasized the social aspects of disasters which occur as a result of known hazards should be viewed as consequences of lack of preparedness and poor policies rather than as a “natural” disaster event.

Dr Emily So, a specialist in earthquake damage in the aftermath of natural disasters, emphasized that we need to do more to understand flows of information, and to understand where knowledge that informs decision-making comes from. While, expert opinions help to bound uncertainty in the context of disaster response, we need to ensure we understand which expert opinions are being included in informing decision making and why.

Reflecting on the challenges of thinking about risk across disciplines, Dr Amy Donovan of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Geography emphasized the need to ensure that the study and response to natural disasters needs to include voices from both the sciences and humanities. She reflected that there is little training focused on the philosophy of science and risk in the traditional sciences, and that other domains can contribute to conversations concerning how to best address the challenge of translating risk. This interdisciplinary work must go beyond collaboration at the point of risk communication, instead focusing on collaboration in the initial production of knowledge, with the goal of designing effective early warning systems which take framing, positionality and reflexivity into account. She also emphasized that we need to focus on understanding how science-policy encounters communicate uncertainty with the aim of ensuring trust in disaster communications and bringing lay knowledge into the dialogues.

Later in the day, Dr Robert Evans emphasized the need to think about including different kinds of experts in information gathering processes which feed into decision-making. This should include those whose expertise is derived from a variety of sources – not just formal scientific qualifications, but also tacit knowledge and that derived from lived experience. Here, contributory expertise and interactional expertise can also contribute valuable insight, where heterogenous and diverse approaches are taken to soliciting expert knowledge during disaster responses.

Ben Taylor, CEO at Evidence Aid, noted that the humanitarian ecosystem isn’t cohesive, and that there is large scale reliance on deployed and experience-based expertise. He highlights that the evidence base informing humanitarian responses is often weak due to difficulties in engaging in ethical research in disaster contexts. While the sector has been undergoing professionalization, there remain issues surrounding evidence and opaque decision-making structures which are focused on the logistical, pragmatic, political and reputational sides of making decisions.

There has been a shift over the past decades away from a hazard-oriented, technocratic and top-down system of disaster response suggests Professor Dorothea Hilhorst of Erasmus University Rotterdam. This has been replaced by a resilience-oriented, inclusive, system-based approach to disaster governance which includes a focus on disaster risk reduction. Social domains, including domains of knowledge and power, are not part of these formal response systems, but act as soft influences upon them. Consequently, she suggests that it is important for us to take into consideration how disasters magnify pre-existing and context-specific challenges faced by societies, including the roles of government and the state, and the fractured nature of civil society.

Photo by Gary Saldana on Unsplash