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Social Science Helps Nations Respond to Outbreaks and National Disasters

Six people on stage at the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting
International science officials at the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting spoke about the importance of social science expertise during crises. | Robb Cohen Photography & Video

The expertise of social scientists has proved invaluable in responding to and rebuilding from crises as varied as Ebola outbreaks and devastating earthquakes, a panel of international science officials said at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

When the World Health Organization declared the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak an international public health emergency, 28 members of the European Commission made funding available to develop mobile diagnostic tools and early vaccine testing within three months, said Jean-Eric Paquet, director-general of the Commission. But one of the most important response tools, he recalled, were social scientists who helped develop effective messages about the outbreak for television and radio programs.

Sir Mark Walport, the chief executive of U.K. Research and Innovation, said anthropologists also played a significant role in understanding Ebola’s spread during the epidemic. For some groups affected by the outbreak, he said, touching a corpse before burial — when it is likely to be very contagious — is an important cultural tradition. “It was anthropologists who understood what was going on, and it was anthropologists who were able to prepare the culturally sensitive advice about how to change habits.”

In 2018, Cape Town faced a well-publicized “Day Zero” emergency when the city’s water was expected to run out. During this crisis, social scientists helped the South African government encourage the public to “change their behavior patterns with regard to water consumption” and avoid the worst outcomes, said Daan du Toit, deputy director of international cooperation and resources in the South African Department of Science and Technology.

Social science also informed education and recovery efforts in Japan after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster that followed the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Michinari Hamaguchi, the president of Japan Science & Technology Agency, said that school programs on how to survive an earthquake and tsunami showed that “teaching data is not enough” and that “practice and confidence and prepared minds are also important.”

“I think cutting-edge research is very important, but sometimes we are interested in cool minds, and in addition to cool minds we need warm hearts to support people through our specialties,” Hamaguchi said.

The panel members also discussed ways in which the science community can prepare for future emergencies, including “slow motion” crises such as climate change, microplastic pollution in the oceans and cybersecurity threats.

Building public trust in science experts before an emergency happens should be a key goal, said Mona Nemer, Canada’s chief science adviser. One of her first acts as science adviser was to develop a government-wide science integrity policy, which “ensures that government scientists are able to speak publicly about their work and their areas of interest and ensures also that the science is being conducted without any interference,” she said.

The panelists agreed that international partnerships are critical to planning for future crises, and that new global entities may be needed to deal with certain emergencies. For instance, facilities that manufacture flu vaccines should be distributed in multiple countries, said Walport, to “plan on a scale that can protect global populations.”

The discussion was moderated by AAAS President Margaret Hamburg, who also presented the 2019 AAAS Award for Science Diplomacy to five scientists central to the founding and development of the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East laboratory.

Correction, February 21, 2019: The sentence describing Michinari Hamaguchi's comments on cutting-edge research has been corrected to read "cool minds."