Flu-bugs…and the Weather-Ready Nation

Ever heard of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity? Neither had I, until this morning. But on the front page of today’s Washington Post, we find this headline; “Scientists asked to withhold details of lab-created flu.” Turns out that while our community has been focusing on improving the nation’s weather-readiness, making the world safe from tornadoes and more, our brethren in the biological sciences have been working equally hard to make the world safe from flu. But in the process, they’ve (inadvertently) done the opposite. They’ve created a version of the H5N1 influenza virus that looks to be hazardous to the human race. It’s highly lethal (remember that 60% fatality figure associated with H5N1?), but in this new form is easily transmissible from one laboratory animal to another.

Hmm. Forewarned is forearmed. To find evidence for what until now we’ve only suspected…that this virus might be capable of mutating in this dangerous way…that’s adding to our store of knowledge, right? The new form of the virus appears to have been an unplanned consequence of well-intended research. Only some are now concerned that such a strain might be deliberately or accidentally released. Enter the NSABB, with its recommendation that research publications on this work be withheld or modified to reduce such a possibility. Scientists and journal publishers are grumpy…beginning to debate.

Certainly we’ve heard such discussions before. Think about all those instruction booklets, websites, etc., providing instructions on how to build nuclear weapons, and more. Recall the outcry against these. Public safety? Freedom of inquiry and expression? Take your pick. False choice? We’ll likely hear further on all this soon, from diverse and conflicting points of view.

What on earth could this possibly have to do with the national strategies for coping with weather hazards? Surely we can be grateful that our field doesn’t pose such ethical conundrums?

Not so fast.

Discussions at last week’s Norman workshop touched on, but did not fully resolve, two such ethical issues. The first has to do with who is at risk from tornadoes (what follows has bearing on all natural hazards – floods, drought, hurricanes, winter storms, earthquakes, and more – but let’s keep it simple for now and focus only on the tornado bit). Certainly the greatest risk lies in the central and southeastern United States. But the risk is also greatest for those who live in manufactured housing (some use the term mobile homes). As has been discussed elsewhere, so-called stick homes (conventional wood-frame construction) are subject to county-by-county building codes, which can be different for each of the 3000 counties in the United States. Typically, these codes provide that homes should be able to withstand 120 mph winds. By contrast, manufactured housing is built to a single, national code. Such homes don’t have to withstand anything greater than a 90 mph wind.

A direct hit by a category 4 or 5 tornado? Homes of both types are toast. But what happens as you move toward the periphery of the tornado track, or further away still? The width of the track of hazard is significantly wider for manufactured housing. Why does this matter? It matters because 25% of the new-home construction in many parts of the central and southern United States are manufactured. It’s the cheaper alternative…

…and therefore the option available to our poor. [The poor also have another option: dilapidated, poorly-maintained conventional housing, which may look strong enough viewed from the outside or inside, but be suffering from rot and decay of the framework that goes undetected and unremarked.]

This link between poverty and risk is not confined to natural hazards. The poor are at greater risk to all sorts of health problems. The poor are at risk of receiving less of an education…vital to success in today’s world. But let’s stick to this one risk factor. Very often those poor – more vulnerable to tornado risk – are receiving less warning. They don’t have cellphones. They lack NOAA weather radios. English may only be their second language. They may be transient to the community…unfamiliar with local weather risks and/or their options for action. They may also be elderly or ill – less able to respond quickly.

Why is that our problem? Because we’re advocating for more resources to do a better job at our piece of responsibility – improved observation, science, and forecasts. In fact, that was precisely the focus of the Norman workshop – to focus more attention on the social science needed to help everyone – of every income level, ethnicity, gender, and background – gain better access to the weather warnings, have an expanded understanding of their implications, and know what action to take.

But what if that needed action is unavailable? What if the housing contains no safe room? What if there is no underground shelter nearby? Then, the poor family, who are living at such risk not through deliberate decision (it’s not as if they’d opted instead for a home Jacuzzi) but because no safer option was available to them, might be forgiven for feeling despair, or even frustration or anger, at their plight. However we look at this, there’s still a hint that part of the policy/social-science prescription has to go beyond the immediate warning issue and address the underlying poverty. After all, the goal is to make Americans weather-ready, however that might best be achieved. Our work is only one of several means to that end.

And speaking of social science? That brings us to the second ethical/policy concern underlying the Norman discussions. The current straitened fiscal climate is causing Congress to shrink agency budgets. The current political climate is causing Congress to eliminate direct funding for the social sciences – because the conclusions of social research often tend to couple visibly and directly to policy and politics. [For natural sciences these same links are there but as this post suggests, more indirect, a little less visible.] Moreover, agencies focusing on the natural-science piece of the puzzle are looking to social scientists to step up the collaboration even as they’re cutting the social scientists’ support.

Many meteorologists I know were originally attracted to the field because of the wonder and awe that weather, especially extreme weather, inspires. As complicated as weather may be, it’s captured by the so-called Navier-Stokes equations. And formidable though those equations appear, they’ve reluctantly yielded their secrets to observing networks, satellites, high-speed computers, and numerical weather prediction. We can now predict when nature will be at its most terrifying. How cool is that? But along the way, we’re learning that the scientific challenge is far easier than the social one. And our job is not just to advance understanding, but to provide actual help to those people whose taxes are footing our bills, and not just the wealthier taxpayers, but those who are poorer than we are. So long as our forecasts were inadequate to the task, such niceties didn’t matter. But with 2011’s tornado season behind us and the 2012 season just ahead, we can no longer duck the social and ethical issues we now encounter.

We’re not like those flu researchers. We haven’t accidentally created a new hazard. But we have developed a new understanding of our weather vulnerability, and what it will take to be weather-ready. Somehow our joint natural-science/social-science community has to find a way forward that will let us support both efforts and harness both bodies of knowledge to enhance public safety. If social science cannot be supported by direct Congressional appropriation or by indirect agency grants and contracts, we may have to seek support from donors and foundations. But we should do that together.

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