Science During Crisis 640 360

If your town were suddenly struck by an earthquake or hurricane, you could count on the arrival of police, firefighters, and medical technicians to aid in the emergency response. As of this past January, the US government has added a new team of responders to this list—scientists.

The Strategic Sciences Group was formed under Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in order to help the department “act quickly, decisively and effectively when hurricanes, droughts, oil spills, wildfires or other crises strike.” The group was initially tested as a pilot program during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and is now a permanent part of the Department of the Interior.

But don’t expect to see people in lab coats rushing into burning buildings or diving into flooding rivers.

“The Strategic Sciences Group’s mission,” says group co-leader Gary Machlis, “is to very quickly assemble a team of scientists to develop scenarios of what the cascading consequences of a crisis might be.” These scenarios are projections of all the different ways in which the disaster might play out. The projections are then delivered to the President and other national leaders to help inform real-time, emergency-response decisions.

During Deepwater Horizon, for example, calculations regarding oil flow rates helped decision-makers respond to obvious problems such as ecosystem contamination, as well as some subtler consequences: long-term displacement of oyster harvesters, disproportionate economic impacts upon cultural communities, and diminished hurricane resilience due to wetland stress.

Deepwater Horizon in flames, April 21, 2010.
Deepwater Horizon in flames, April 21, 2010.
(AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard)

With such a breadth of potential consequences to examine, its clear that the Strategic Sciences Group’s task is not simple. What is surprising however, is that many of the group’s difficulties stem from the nature of the scientific process itself.

“Scientists are very accustomed to being deliberate in their work,” says Marcia Mcnutt, who worked with the Strategic Sciences Group during her tenure as director of the United States Geological Survey. “The idea that they might get critical info on a Monday night and need to have their best guess of what that info means by six am Tuesday morning is just not the normal way science operates.”

And, Machlis adds, the rapidly determined results must also be communicated persuasively.

“It isn’t enough to do good science. You might have an extraordinary, complex scenario figured out that’s important for leaders to know, but if you can’t tell that story clearly and effectively, it’s of less value.”

These requirements—the ability to work with urgency, cope with uncertainty, and communicate well with non-scientists—separate crisis science from traditional scientific research.

When creating the Strategic Sciences Group, Machlis responded to these unique demands by borrowing ideas from an unusual agency: The Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, which was established during World War II to coordinate espionage activities behind enemy lines.

Machlis says he has learned four important lessons from the historic military-intelligence organization:

1. Who You Hire Matters

OSS founder Maj. Gen. William J. Donovan with members of the OSS Operational Groups
OSS founder Maj. Gen. William J. Donovan with members of the OSS
Photo Courtesy of the OSS Society

“The ideal candidate for the OSS were PhD’s that could win a bar fight,” says Machlis.

While martial arts training is not an actual requirement, the Strategic Sciences Group does seek scientists with a certain mental and physical tenacity. “They‘ve got to be expert in their own discipline, able to transcend their own discipline and work well with other scientists, and they have to be able to work extremely hard under very intense conditions.”

2. Expertise Not Representation

“Our goal is to get the very best people in the field working on these science teams. It is less about do we need one person from this agency and one person from this agency to make sure it’s representative.”

From government scientists to graduate students, anyone with the necessary skills can be recruited and put onto Machlis’ lists, or “rosters”.

3. Be Flexible

US Department of the Interior Strategic Sciences Working Group, New Orleans, LA, July 2010.
US Department of the Interior Strategic Sciences Working Group, New Orleans, LA, July 2010. Photo Credit: Jason Newman

Machlis ensures that the rosters are highly interdisciplinary. The 30 scientists who have already been called to action include “an anthropologist with expertise in disaster response from Louisiana, a public health medical officer from Washington, DC, a coastal geomorphologist from California, an ecologist working with a major natural history museum, and a Forest Service social scientist with expertise in urban ecology.”

Such diversity allows the Strategic Sciences Group to be highly adaptable.

“Each crisis that might happen, whether it’s an oil spill, whether it’s an earth quake, whether it’s a dam failure, there’s always going to be many elements of it that are unique. We need to be flexible enough to choose a team that has reliable expert scientists appropriate to that crisis.”

4. Avoid Bureaucracy

“We stay focused on the mission rather than developing a lot of complicated, time-consuming bureaucratic processes.”

In order to avoid creating a large government agency, Machlis only activates the rostered scientists when a disaster occurs. At all other times, the Strategic Sciences Group is made up of only three people.

This three person team, when there are no current crises, spends its time evaluating the consequences of potential crises.

By considering situations such as “a forest fire in the sierras during Yosemite’s tourist season, or a pandemic, or an arctic oil spill,” the group hopes to pre-emptively increase response preparedness. Ultimately, Machlis aims to have the capacity to address simultaneous, bi-coastal disasters. For example: an earthquake in California and a hurricane in New York on the same day.

When will the group be ready for such a situation?

“I would hope that we’re prepared for that within the year.”

Mark that down as December 31st, 2013–the date when you can expect not only police and firefighters, but also scientists, to play a role in addressing the next major natural or man-made disaster.

Scientist Superheroes: The US Government’s Crisis Science Team 15 May,2013Peter Lollo


Peter Lollo

Peter graduated with a BA in Political Economy and BS in Conservation & Resource Studies from UC Berkeley in 2010. He has since worked within a number of environmental organizations throughout the Bay Area as well as founded a Berkeley recycling program aimed at reducing municipal waste. Peter has also done environmental reporting for the East Bay Express as well as the non profit organization Food & Water Watch. Off the job, he plays ping pong at his home--a skill for which he is residentially-renowned.

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