Gilbert White Lecture Focuses on Reducing Losses from Natural Hazards

The National Academies’ Board on Earth Sciences and Resources held its annual Gilbert F. White Lecture in the Geographical Sciences on December 4. Susan Cutter, Distinguished Carolina Professor at the University of South Carolina (and a past president of COSSA), delivered the lecture, which focused on “Why More Knowledge Is Not Reducing Natural Hazard Losses.” She explained that despite huge increases in our knowledge of the physical processes and social forces that interact during natural disasters, losses from such events have only grown.

Cutter proposed three areas where progress can be made toward reversing this paradox: loss accounting, natural hazard science, and applying science in public policy. She pointed out that the U.S. (or any other country for that matter) has no national accounting system to track all hazard events and losses. To fill this need, Cutter and her team at the University of South Carolina’s Hazards and Vulnerability Institute developed a database, but funding challenges necessitated that the project start charging user fees. In the hazard science field, Cutter identified the areas of vulnerability and resilience science and recovery as particularly in need of further study.

To better integrate the knowledge gained from hazard science research into public policy, Cutter recommended that policy makers try to shift their thinking of emergency management from a reactionary, responsive approach to a proactive one. She also advised a focus on evidence-based policies, thinking longer term about natural disasters and recovery, and engaging directly with hazard researchers. Cutter also suggested that scientists can make their research more accessible to decision makers by boiling it down to policy briefs and other short pieces, framing the research as problem solving, and avoiding getting bogged down trying to find the perfect solution when one that is “good enough” already exists.

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