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UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction


Coronavirus and Disaster Leadership

By Saqar ' M Al Zaabi, on 29 April 2020

Written by Ilan Kelman

During this pandemic, some world leaders have listened to the advice from their experts and scientists while others have ignored and contradicted it. The step from research and evidence to decisions and actions will always lead to a variety of outcomes where the researchers and the decision-makers are different. What examples do we have of academics, notably disaster academics, as political leaders?

The answer seems to be that disaster academics as politicians are rare. Partly because of scientists’ general inclination to shun the public spotlight. Partly because disaster research is an amorphous field, ill-defined and only relatively recently being large enough to potentially be considered a cohesive discipline.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Heads of state and heads of government who worked as academics are more common. Angela Merkel of Germany was a quantum chemist; Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga of Latvia spent decades researching, teaching, and publishing on psychology, semiotics, and cognition; Woodrow Wilson of the USA was, suitably, a scholar in American politics.

Margaret Thatcher of the UK is often mentioned, but she did not have a PhD, although she worked as a research chemist before qualifying as a barrister. Meanwhile, casting the net wider to ministers rather than heads of state and government, opens up possibilities such as Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice as US Secretaries of State. Their policies were not the most supportive of disaster risk reduction.

At least a dozen other current or recent world political leaders have doctoral degrees with a vast range of topics and experience levels in post-PhD research. None identified could be said to have worked in disaster research.

Then, there is the meme circulating about the countries doing well in keeping Covid-19 under control, all of whom have women as heads of government. It is a somewhat artificial list, as there are several counterexamples. In fact, in mid-April, Israel was listed as one of the highest-ranked countries for Covid-19 safety when it did not even have a government and the caretaker Prime Minister (a man) was under indictment.

So we pose plenty of questions regarding political leadership and disaster risk reduction and response, especially during the current pandemic. In particular, given that we as IRDR scientists seek public and policy influence from our work, could we achieve more as academics or as politicians–or is there some combination which could function best?

2 Responses to “Coronavirus and Disaster Leadership”

  • 1
    George Kent wrote on 3 May 2020:

    Ilan, why ask, “What examples do we have of academics, notably disaster academics, as political leaders? I think it is more important to ask, how should disaster academics relate to political leaders and others who can influence policy.

    I was recently jarred by a statement from the Journal of Human Lactation about what it sees as a need, “to ensure that scientific journals can operate as freely as possible from non-scientific concerns.” Really? Scientific journals should not address non-scientific concerns?

    I accept being labeled as a political scientist even if “science” is placed in quotation marks. But I am not here just to defend my turf. My position is that finding the truth is important, but it is also important to do things that are useful. Purely scientific work sometimes turns out to be useful just by accident, but it is far more likely to be useful if non-scientific concerns are taken into account. Real-world actions are based on much more than “facts” that have been validated through randomized controlled trials and other scientific procedures.

    Why do graduate programs put so much emphasis on scientific research and its methods and give so little attention to policy analysis and its methods? Wouldn’t more policy studies be useful?

    Aloha, George Kent

  • 2
    Ilan Kelman wrote on 8 May 2020:

    Thank you, George, helpful direction and useful to hear about your experiences. I suggest that both our questions are relevant and needed, being complementary and adding to what we seek. As for Masters programmes, we do what you ask regarding policy–without losing scientific rigour–in our disasters Masters and PhDs as well as the UK’s first Bachelor’s in humanitarianism https://www.ucl.ac.uk/risk-disaster-reduction/study

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