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Deploying Strategic Science to Respond to Crises

By Kiza Gates (2013-2014 Executive Branch Fellow, U.S. Geological Survey) and
Kris Ludwig (2012-2013 Executive Branch Fellow, U.S. Geological Survey and National Science Foundation)

Science is increasingly called upon by the Department of the Interior (DOI) to respond to major environmental crises. DOI has significant responsibilities to protect people and resources and engage in emergency response, recovery, and restoration efforts in events such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Hurricane Sandy. While much of the science is tactical – solving engineering problems, assessing damage, etc. – there is also a need for science that is strategic and forward-looking in order to prepare for crises, analyze long-term effects, and develop new ways to speed recovery.

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The DOI Strategic Sciences Group (SSG) was initially formed as an experiment during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the group was a temporary interdisciplinary entity including scientists from federal, academic, and non-governmental organizations. Its purpose was to develop science-based assessments of the long-term effects of the spill on the ecology, economy, and people of the Gulf of Mexico.

Following the success of this experimental group, then-Secretary Ken Salazar established the SSG by Secretarial Order in January 2012 as a standing entity at DOI. Co-led by the science advisor to the National Park Service director and the U.S. Geological Survey associate director for natural hazards, the SSG reports to the science advisor to the Secretary of the Interior. Many of the SSG staff are fellows: Kiza Gates (2013-2014 Executive Branch Fellow, U.S. Geological Survey), Kris Ludwig (2012-2013 Executive Branch Fellow, U.S. Geological Survey and NSF), and Dave Applegate (1994-1995 American Geophysical Union Congressional Fellow, U.S. Senate).

SSG delivers strategic science by analyzing the short- and long-term consequences of an event and providing results as usable knowledge. To do this, SSG rapidly assembles teams of scientists to construct scenarios of environmental crises and identify potential interventions to accelerate recovery and restoration. SSG was deployed in 2013 to support the Department’s role on the federal Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. A team of experts – Operational Group Sandy – was assembled for a week-long session to develop scenarios that included interventions to improve regional resilience to future major storms. Kris Ludwig was lead contributing author on a report of the results from these scenarios which was used to inform the selection of projects to be funded by Hurricane Sandy supplemental funds.

SSG is preparing to confront future disasters by building relationships with other agencies and professional societies. These relationships will help the SSG identify experts who can serve on crisis science teams. Kiza Gates is leading the effort to build an expert roster system to improve the efficiency of identifying future response team members from a wide variety of sectors and disciplines.

Designed, built, and now maintained by Gates, SSG also launched a website in March to communicate SSG’s activities and publications to a broad audience.