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Success of LA Seismic Plan Offers Lessons for Science Activation

Lucy Jones speaks at the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting
Lucy Jones delivered the plenary address to close the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting | Robb Cohen Photography & Video

In 2014, Lucy Jones took some time away from her job as a research seismologist at the U.S. Geological Survey to advise the Los Angeles mayor’s office on new plans to build an earthquake-resilient city. The experience holds several important lessons for scientists seeking to successfully insert science into public policy, said Jones at the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting.

The partnership between the USGS and the city has led to important retrofits of thousands of concrete buildings in Los Angeles, along with plans to protect crucial water, gas and telecommunications pipelines that are likely to be damaged during a major earthquake rupturing along the southern San Andreas fault.

Jones, who left the USGS in 2016 after 33 years of service to establish the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, said it took more than good communication to produce these striking results. Instead, she said, the partnership was a good example of science activation, where policymakers are empowered to use what they learn from scientists “rather than just accepting it.”

One of the first decisions the scientists made was to present the city with a scenario of a major earthquake hitting Los Angeles, told from ten minutes before the quake struck to six months after the disaster. Jones said they chose to tell a “scientifically defensible story” rather than offer a string of probabilities about a massive earthquake.

It wasn’t an easy choice, because scientists are trained to prefer large data sets and repeated experiments over stories or anecdotes, Jones said, but stories are traditionally “how people make decisions.”

To tell the story, Jones and her fellow scientists had to put together a consensus document about the location of the earthquake and the type of ground shaking. Scientists are used to uncertainty and evolving findings, but policymakers prefer to at least know what scientists can agree on, she said.

The researchers also focused heavily on the economic impacts of a southern California earthquake, rather than talk about the less likely case of widespread human deaths, Jones noted, because psychological studies suggest people are most afraid of confronting risks that are “unseen, uncertain and unknowable.”

Jones called for more scientists to step into the “demilitarized zone” between research and policy and become involved in creating consensus reports or scenarios, even though researchers naturally shy away from resolved issues in pursuit of unanswered questions.

She said the public might become more comfortable with the uncertainty of scientific findings with STEM education that emphasizes the process of science, including how scientists review and hone their colleagues’ work. The current push for more STEM education focuses on the jobs available to trained scientists, “but we don’t talk about it as if everybody needs to know how STEM works,” she said.

Before the address, AAAS President Margaret Hamburg presented University of California, Santa Barbara physics professor Elisabeth Gwinn with the 2019 AAAS Lifetime Mentor Award; and Arizona State mathematics associate professor Erika Camacho with the 2019 AAAS Mentor Award.

In his remarks to close the 2019 meeting, incoming AAAS President Steven Chu announced the theme of the 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting, “Envisioning Tomorrow’s Earth,” to be held 13-16 February in Seattle, Washington.