Disaster research in perspective: a holistic approach

By: Havidán Rodríguez, Ph.D., Provost and Vice-President for Academic Affairs, the University of Texas-Pan American

As the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Texas-Pan American, I find myself in the midst of the promotion and tenure (P&T) process for the faculty at my institution. As most “typical” reviews for P&T go, we focus on the faculty member’s accomplishments and contributions in teaching, research/scholarship, and service (to the institution, the community, and their profession/discipline). In my reviews, among a host of other factors, I pay careful attention to teaching/scholarship that is interdisciplinary in nature;  international collaborations; engaging students (both undergraduate and graduate) in high-impact or experiential learning activities, such as research; the contributions of the faculty member’s scholarship to the broader community or what the National Science Foundation (NSF) has denominated “broader impacts;” and developing a well-rounded portfolio that highlights rigor and excellence in everything that we do as educators and researchers. You might have already realized that I have very briefly summarized some of the core elements that form part of disaster research and that permeate the work of disaster researchers and practitioners.

For decades or since the “inception” of the field, disaster researchers have focused their attention not only on local, regional or national disaster events, but they have also paid careful attention and have extensively researched international events ranging from devastating earthquakes in Haiti, Iran, Italy, Japan, and Turkey, to the Indian Ocean Tsunami, to Hurricane Mitch in Honduras or Hurricane Katrina in the United States, to floods and landslides in Puerto Rico, India, and Bangladesh, among many others. As disaster researchers, we recognize the value and impact of international research and we have developed a global community and an extensive international network of disaster researchers spanning all seven continents. International collaborations are indeed a critical component of disaster research and it plays a significant role in educating global citizens.

A key element of disaster research has been its interdisciplinary focus, including research teams composed of engineers, geologists, geographers, sociologists, political scientists, urban planners, psychologists, oceanographers, and the list goes on. The NSF has played a key leadership role in the United States in recognizing and funding inter-disciplinary research collaborations that address disasters from a holistic point of view. An excellent example includes the NSF-funded Engineering Research Centers (ERC) that include a multiplicity of researchers from a diversity of disciplines trying to address a common topic or theme within the disaster framework. Also, some of the most prominent disaster centers include a series of multi- or inter-disciplinary research teams and projects that are funded by state or federal agencies. One only needs to focus on the work of the Disaster Research Center (DRC- Delaware), the Natural Hazards Center (Colorado), the Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters (North Carolina), or the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center (Texas), among many others, to see the significant and extensive contributions of interdisciplinary research. Further, just spend a few days at the Hazards Workshop (Colorado) or the Canadian Risk and Hazards Network (CRHNet) Symposium to get a good feel for the interdisciplinary research and collaborations – across educators, researchers, and practitioners – that is taking place not only nationally but globally as well. The CRHNet has as one of its primary objectives to: “Initiate the development of a Canadian inter-disciplinary and cross-sectoral network of researchers, academics and practitioners to enhance understanding of emergency management in all dimensions…” (http://www.crhnet.ca/).

Student (both undergraduate and graduate) engagement in hands-on research is at the core of the disaster research field. Some of the aforementioned centers have trained, educated, and mentored scores of undergraduate and graduate students. They have trained some of the top disaster researchers in the world; produced graduates that have gone one to work in some of the most prominent agencies in the United States and elsewhere, including NSF, the National Research Council, NOAA, USGS, the American Red Cross, and FEMA. This extensive training has also resulted in significant numbers of highly accomplished doctoral students who are now leading researchers in the disaster field who are conducting innovative and cutting-edge research in institutions of higher education across the world. High-impact experiential leaning initiatives, such as hands-on research, are critical indicators of student success, which impact their professional growth and development and they, in turn, impact and shape the field. The disaster field has much to be proud in this domain.

Whether we study the 1960 Chile Earthquake,  the Alaska Earthquake (1964), the Exxon Valdez oil spill (1989),  the Indian Ocean Tsunami (2004),  Hurricane Katrina (2005), the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, or the earthquake/tsunami in Japan (2011), among many others, disaster researchers have made significant contributions to our understanding of disasters, including disaster mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. We have provided a comprehensive and holistic approach to disasters that has resulted in significant policy changes that contribute to a better understanding of how we can mitigate the devastating impacts of disasters. Yes, much more needs to be done and much more needs to be accomplished, but we are making progress. NSF (and others) should be extremely pleased with the broader impacts of this field of inquiry.

So as I sit at my desk reviewing P&T dossiers, I cannot help but think about all the important contributions of the disaster research field and the faculty and other experts that form part of this important global community. Disaster researchers have focused on these critical elements (e.g., interdisciplinary, international, student engagement, broader impacts) that we value, encourage, and reward in these administrative positions. Using these core elements as the basic building blocks for our field, we have been able to increase the reach, visibility, and impact of disaster research.

It is noteworthy that my research background in disaster research has also provided relevant skills and experiences that have significantly impacted my role and functions as a Provost. However, disaster mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery take on whole new meanings in these administrative positions, but that can be left for another edition of the CRHNet Journal.

 Dr. Havidán Rodríguez is the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Texas – Pan American. He was a core faculty member and former director of the Disaster Research Center (DRC). He obtained his Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin.

Dr. Rodríguez has received funding from NSF, the Ford Foundation, the National Institute of Mental Health, FEMA, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, among others, for a number of research projects focusing on the social science aspects of disasters and for projects aimed at providing hands-on research training and mentoring to undergraduate and graduate students. Dr. Rodríguez has led and participated in a number of field research projects, including trips to Honduras, following Hurricane Mitch; India and Sri Lanka, following the Indian Ocean Tsunami; and the Gulf Coast, following Hurricane Katrina. Dr. Rodríguez has a significant number of publications in the area of disasters and he is the co-editor (with Quarantelli and Dynes) of the Handbook of Disaster Research (2006).