How can science survive the strike of crisis?

When crises like war or natural disasters strike, science is often held up as a solution. But science and scientists are vulnerable to crises too, and – according to a new report – scientific institutions need to be better prepared.

The report has been produced by the Centre for Science Futures, a think tank run by the non-profit International Science Council.

According to the report, titled Protecting Science in Times of Crisis, the research sector needs to “take greater responsibility” for resilience before crises hit, as well as protect scientists and scientific information when disaster does strike.

The report looks at a series of case studies, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; the 2018 fire at Brazil’s Natural Science Museum; Japan’s recovery after World War II; and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The Natural Science Museum fire, for instance, “destroyed most of the museum’s 20 million scientific and cultural artefacts, and consequently, much of the country’s scientific and cultural heritage”, according to the report. Fires have also damaged research in Australia, such as the 2003 Canberra bushfires which destroyed the Mount Stromlo Observatory.

Burned library with remains of books
The destroyed library at Mount Stromlo, 2003. Credit: TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP / Getty Images

While scientists are not necessarily the most vulnerable people at the start of a crisis, the report finds they can “slip through the cracks” in recovery.

Professor Sayaka Oki, a historian of science and technology at the University of Tokyo, Japan, tells Cosmos that scientists have some “special needs” in crises.

If infrastructure is destroyed, Oki points out that scientists often have more difficulty than average restoring their jobs after disasters – compared to “jobs more related to everyday life, like restaurants or construction works”.

This can lead to “brain droughts”, where scientists leave their home country in search of work elsewhere.

“In many, many countries, especially in developing countries, they experienced loss of talent after a crisis,” says Oki, who contributed information on the 2011 tsunami and subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster to the report. Cleanup of the nuclear disaster is still going.

The report emphasises that “international scientific institutions, including universities, funders, governments, academies, foundations and disciplinary unions, are often best placed to address these needs”. It also states that science and research institutions can play an “important role” in the post-crisis phase.

“Crises and natural disasters destroy not only material infrastructures and environments, but also social networks or even memory itself,” says Oki.

“When a tsunami hits a workplace, for example, many historical documents are destroyed. So in that situation, we need to consider the recovery of many different things.”

Oki says that one of the outcomes of the Fukushima disaster was the importance of having clear, singular messages in the immediate aftermath.

“At first, you need a single voice and strong messages [to avoid] more panic,” says Oki, adding that good science communication and social science is key to getting this balance right.

“But little by little, we should come back to normal, democratic discussions.”

The 2011 earthquake was one of the most powerful ever recorded, and Oki says that the Japanese scientific community was “shocked” by it and the subsequent tsunami.

If a similar disaster struck tomorrow, would Japan respond differently?

“Well, I hope so,” says Oki.

“But it’s a difficult question, because we are now in a difficult era compared with 10 years ago. Political division is stronger now, for example, even in Japan, and the media environment is different,” she adds.

Sir Peter Gluckman, president of the International Science Council, says that “the report comes at a time when schools, universities, research centres and hospitals, all places which promote the advancement of education and scientific research, have been places of conflict, and destroyed or damaged during the Ukraine, Sudan, Gaza and other crises”.

“We in the scientific community must reflect on creating the enabling conditions for science to survive and thrive,” says Gluckman.

Oki emphasises that the need to protect and support academics extends to social science and humanities scholars, as well.

“Many Ukrainian historians I know in my network had more difficulty to get direct support from foreign universities,” she says.

“Many of them are women. Some of them are supported, but not as well as natural scientists.”

Sign up to our weekly newsletter

Please login to favourite this article.