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Scientific Advice and Evidence in Emergencies

Submission to House of Commons Science and Technology Committee: Inquiry into Scientific Advice and Evidence in Emergencies

Submitted 13 September 2010 

The Geological Society is grateful for the opportunity to respond to this inquiry.  In addressing the questions raised, we have focused on the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud case study, while attempting also to draw some wider lessons.  Several of the questions raised, such as those relating to how advice was sourced and used, are principally for Government, and for those who have clear sight of its workings.  We can, however, attempt to reflect the perceptions of those in the Earth science community we represent regarding these issues, and have interpreted these questions correspondingly broadly.   

We note that a separate submission has been made by the British Geophysical Association (BGA) (a Joint Association of the Geological Society and the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS)), again focusing on the ash cloud case, and that the BGA also provided input to the RAS submission on solar storms.    

What are the potential hazards and risks and how were they identified?  How prepared was the Government for the emergency?  How did the Government use scientific advice and evidence to identify, prepare for and react to an emergency?

Potential risks of volcanic ash, including those to aviation, were well known prior to the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull.  For example, a British Airways flight narrowly escaped disaster following the 1982 eruption of Mount Galunggung in Indonesia (see  In particular, some Earth scientists report that they have been warning Government and others of the potential for major disruption due to Icelandic eruptions for a number of years, but feel that little notice has been taken of these warnings.   

The impression of some in the volcanological research community is that when the emergency arose, initially the gathering and use of advice was not well coordinated, despite the willingness to help of a wide range of those with relevant expertise.  However, those who were directly involved in working with Government, particularly in the British Geological Survey (BGS) (see below) report that coordination and communication of geoscientific advice was prompt and effective.  Those in the wider community, who were most likely unaware of much of this activity, acknowledge that the situation improved, and that overall the Government took appropriate geological advice and used it effectively – though there is little understanding in the community of how key experts were identified, or of the institutional arrangements employed.  Some of the responsibility for any lack of understanding must fall to the Earth science community itself.  

BGS, as a Research Centre of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), will make its own submission to the inquiry as part of the Research Councils UK response.  We highlight here the role BGS played, in its role advising Government on natural hazards, and as a major centre for UK volcanology which was central to the input of the geoscience community in this case.  BGS led geoscientific liaison with Icelandic authorities, and alongside the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) provided information and advice to the civil contingency secretariat on decisions relating to aviation.  Together with NCAS and the Met Office, BGS was represented on the Scientific Advisory Group in Emergencies (SAGE), chaired by the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor.  We welcome the news that NERC is to lead a joint interdisciplinary research programme with ESRC on resilience and vulnerability to seismic and volcanic-related natural hazards, as a contribution to the RCUK ‘Global Uncertainties’ programme.  

Regarding future risks, it is widely recognised that other volcanoes on Iceland might cause similar problems to Eyjafjallajökull, possibly on a considerably greater scale.  Volcanoes in other parts of the world may also produce ash clouds, and these too could cause disruption.  Mapping of major, in particular, polar air routes to the distribution of active and recently dormant volcanoes could be instructive, for example, in assessing potential risk posed by volcanoes on the west coast or North America (Mount St Helens, Mount Rainier, etc) and Alaska, especially the chain of Aleutian volcanoes.   

A further issue is the extent of monitoring.  Volcanoes such as Mount St Helens and, in Europe, Vesuvius, are surrounded by extensive ground based seismic networks which should provide early warning of possible eruption.  But on a worldwide scale many volcanoes are not monitored and erupt with no warning.  It may be possible to supplement ground monitoring with remotely sensed data from satellites.  Key factors in determining whether this would be feasible or useful are the nature of onboard sensors and their utility, as well as the extent, frequency and sensitivity of the coverage which could be furnished in this way.  

Not all volcanic eruptions produce ash clouds, but among those which do, the chemical composition of the material ejected and the style of eruption (i.e. the mechanism by which it happens) vary.  These factors will affect the physical properties of any ash created, such as the melting point, particle size and density of the ash; and the size, density, location and optical properties of the cloud.  These properties in turn affect the possible risks.  In continuing to improve our understanding of past, present and future eruptions and their impacts, factors to consider therefore include likelihood of volcanic activity by location, chemical composition of the magma, potential explosiveness, and interaction with other elements of the Earth system (in the case of ash clouds, the atmosphere).    

What are the obstacles to obtaining reliable, timely scientific advice and evidence to inform policy decisions in emergencies?  Has the Government sufficient powers and resources to overcome the obstacles?  Was there sufficient and timely scientific evidence to inform policy decisions?  

To position the government to access and use expert advice in all of the more or less foreseeable emergency situations which might arise is clearly a huge challenge.  Suggestions for addressing this challenge among those we consulted included setting up an appropriate ‘rapid response’ group, to be on stand-by ahead of an event – though clearly a large number of such groups would be needed to provide even reasonable coverage of those possible emergencies which have been identified, let alone those which have not.   

A more realistic approach might be to improve the means by which those in Government can rapidly identify and contact those with relevant expertise (recognising that useful advice may come from sectors and disciplines which those seeking it have not thought of).  There may be a significant role here for the learned societies.  For example, the Geological Society is in preliminary discussions with officials at the Government Office for Science, as well as colleagues at other scientific societies, to explore the scope for an administratively light mechanism to help officials looking for rapid expert advice (not necessarily in emergency situations) to address their questions to a central point, from where it would be picked up by those societies who believe there may be relevant expertise among their membership.  Resource constraints, particularly at smaller more specialist societies, however modest the requirements, are likely to be the main obstacle to such a scheme, along with lack of uptake on either side.  

There is a perception, perhaps undeserved, among some in the Earth science community that the Government is poorly set up to receive advice (whether or not it is explicitly sought), particularly at times of crisis.  Some also questioned how effectively and rapidly such advice is scrutinised and filtered.  Experience from other crises suggests that it can be difficult to communicate a serious scientific concern, particularly if it is not founded in the discipline(s) which are assumed primarily to inform the policy issue in question (e.g. if an issue of physics is raised during a veterinary crisis).  The reception on the part of Government to representations and advice about the eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano on Montserrat from 1995 onwards (which forced most of the island’s population to flee and destroyed its capital) clearly did lasting damage to the confidence of the volcanological community in these advice structures.  Perceptions among research communities that Government is ill equipped or even unwilling to hear external expert advice, even if they are misplaced, represent a serious challenge to future effectiveness in this area, and warrant putting effort into confidence building, both on the part of Government and the Earth science community itself.   

In its submission to the Government Chief Scientific Advisor’s consultation on guidelines on scientific analysis on policy making, the Geological Society recognised some of the competing demands on Government’s use of expert advice, potentially across multiple disciplines and in the context of public and stakeholder engagement.  We noted the value, but also the difficulty, of paying attention to the sectors in which expertise originates (academia, industry, government agencies and regulatory bodies, NGOs, etc), of embracing plural and diverse viewpoints (including among scientists who disagree), and of valuing the dissent and unorthodoxy which are at the heart of science – and drive its development.  The challenges of such an approach to sourcing and using advice is all the more challenging in emergencies, but may be no less important, since moments of crisis can also be those in which public confidence is most at stake and Government’s use of expertise is likely to come under scrutiny.  

The scientific community can only provide excellent advice if it is supported by continuing excellent research.  Regarding volcanic ash clouds, the research priorities suggested above span the applied and the more basic, and a similar range of research will underpin many other known risk areas.  But it is also vital to maintain a vibrant culture of high calibre curiosity-driven research, among other reasons, so that society is as well positioned as possible to respond to the ‘unknown unknowns’ – future novel risks and emergencies which we have not yet anticipated.  Much of the research being done on volcanic ash would have been regarded as basic only a few months ago, before the phenomenon was widely recognised as a threat, but can now reasonably be characterised as applied (or at least applicable).  In the long run, the supply of excellent science researchers and communicators will depend not only on research funding, but on high quality science education at all levels, and on the nurturing of those seeking research and other science careers.    

How effective is the strategic coordination between Government departments, public bodies, private bodies, sources of scientific advice and the research base in preparing for and reacting to emergencies?  

As noted above, there is some perception that central coordination of information was weak, particularly in the early stages of the emergency.  A particular concern is a lack of awareness, even now, among the relatively small UK volcanological research community, of the work other researchers and groups are engaged in (or seeking funding for), and this situation is common to other sub-disciplines, impairing not only the community’s ability to function and communicate effectively amongst themselves, but also to provide advice to Government.  It would be a major challenge to try comprehensively to identify and record in a useful way all the research being undertaken across universities and research institutions, but if an attempt is not made to address this issue, and in the absence of more strategic coordination of research, we risk wasting resources by duplicating effort, and missing out on available knowledge and expertise in addressing policy issues.  The data held by the Research Councils (both as funding bodies for university research, and as research institutions or contractors in their own right), taken together with the information gathered for the REF, could be a useful starting point.    

How important is international coordination and how could it be strengthened?  

Sharing advice, information and best practice internationally is clearly to be encouraged, and is essential in addressing phenomena whose impacts cross national boundaries (such as the Eyjafjallajökull ash cloud).  Research groups in universities and other institutions routinely engage in such international collaboration.  Further to its involvement in providing information and advice during the crisis, the BGS is currently collaborating with the Iceland Institute of Earth Sciences, the Icelandic Meteorological Office, the UK Met Office and several UK universities on a major research project in this area.  Government should seek not only to benefit from the research results which ensue, but also to build on such initiatives to improve communication and sharing with those responsible for scientific advice in overseas governments.  (We are aware that SAGE is working with Icelandic colleagues to address volcanic activity and its impacts on the UK, and to develop scenarios for planning and mitigation in the case of future potentially larger volcanic eruptions.)  It should actively support collaboration of this kind, enhance the capabilities of UK institutions to engage in it, and seek to ensure that participation is not threatened for example by funding constraints.    


This submission identifies a number of areas in which we suggest that Government should act to address real or perceived shortcomings, or to maintain and capitalise on capabilities.  It is important too that scientific communities examine critically their own strengths and weaknesses, and act to improve communication within and between research communities, and between these communities and policy-makers, regarding policy-relevant science.  Learned societies are among those best placed to broker such discussions, and the Geological Society takes seriously its responsibilities with respect to the Earth science community.  We are keen to engage closely with relevant policy-makers as we seek to improve our performance in this area.          


13 September 2010