What if disaster resilience research funding doesn’t actually improve resilience?
Recognising the urgent need to respond to rapid societal and environmental change, resilience is one of the University of Twente’s spearheads. As an academic institution, we have a role to play in strengthening the resilience of the social, technological and environmental systems that support us. In this weekly series, UT researchers share their personal reflections on current events and trends that impact our daily lives, exploring their implications for resilience. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own. In this third issue, Norman Kerle highlights concerns about the way in which disaster resilience is funded and how this is being addressed.
This week (29 June 2023) the European Commission will publish the latest Horizon Europe funding program in the area of Civil Security for Society (Work Programme 6). Over the next two years more than 60 million euro of research funding will be awarded to projects on a variety of security-related topics supporting a Disaster-Resilient Society for Europe. The topics cover a lot of ground, including increased risk awareness, improved societal disaster preparedness, more standardised crisis management procedures, and better tools for first responders. For researchers and industry working in these areas, as well as those segments of European society vulnerable to disasters, it is great to see Brussels giving this theme so much attention.
A more sobering thought is that very similar funding calls have been published by the Commission for more than 15 years. Europe should be a highly resilient place by now, with perfect knowledge about disaster risk, great tools to predict and anticipate emergencies, and to respond to disasters when they occur. The reality is far from that. The UT’s geoscience faculty ITC is preparing a funding proposal on improved tools and methods for emergency responders who provide assistance in the event of a disaster such as an earthquake or wildfire. However, in this specific field more than 20 projects were already funded over the last ten years alone, receiving in total about 190 million euro from the European Commission. Well over 100 different physical and software tools have been developed in those projects. However, very few of them have been put to use in practice. The emergency response community is subject to a high level of regulation and standardisation, which inherently raises barriers to the introduction of new technological solutions. However, it is likely that a more significant reason is that research projects have typically only aimed at a moderate level of development: a proof-of-concept or a demonstration in a very controlled environment (in the Commission’s language: a Technology Readiness Level [TRL] of 5 or 6 out of a possible maximum of 9). The projects then end, without a clear path to operationalizing a promising tool. From a resilience perspective this means: the many industry and research organisations participating in these projects benefit in terms of added income, staff capacity and research output; actual disaster resilience in Europe does not.
A positive sign is that the Commission is increasingly sourcing critical feedback from the individuals and organisations involved in funded activities, including on the actual impact and ways forward. The first responder call for funding proposals published this week specifically aims at identifying the most promising tools and bringing them nearer to the operational stage, in close collaboration with end users. Perhaps this also signals that Brussels has recognised the need to bridge the gap and ensure that the research it funds actually strengthens disaster resilience.
Norman Kerle is a Full Professor in the Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation (ITC) at the University of Twente.
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