Hazard, risks, advice – how far should we go?

This was the title of the plenary discussion on September 11th 2013 at the EMS-ECAM meeting held in Reading. It was chaired by Will Lang, Chief Forecaster at the UK Met Office. The panel members were:

  • Craig Woolhouse, Head of Flood Incident Management at the (English) Environment Agency (EA)
  • Dennis Schulze, PRIMET, Chief Operating Officer of MeteoGroup
  • Gerald Fleming of Met Eireann
  • Paul Davies, Chief Meteorologist at the UK Met Office

The discussion centred on the question of how to ensure that end-users of forecasts for extreme events were using them effectively, or making the ‘correct’ decisions. Should more persuasive language be used to illicit a given response, or should individuals and organisations be free to act on a forecast as they see fit?  The opening statements covered issues such as ‘galvanising trust and authority’ (Davies), ‘consistent and coherent’ approaches (Fleming), creating an ‘overlap of knowledge’ between meteorologists and users (Schulze), and ‘engaging people with risk’ (Woolhouse).

With the discussion opened up to the audience there were plenty of anecdotes as to what particular organisations had found successful or not, with examples demonstrating the importance of joint initiatives and establishing partnerships as a ‘recognition of a bigger picture’. Predominantly though, there was clear rhetoric from the panel and audience about the importance of bringing the expertise of social scientists to the forefront of meteorology.

The EMS-ECAM meeting was largely a science-focussed event, and it was clear that a ‘social science’ input was missing from the plenary discussion. Additionally, while there were many comments about the need for social science, this ‘need’ remained quite vague and undefined. Perhaps the meteorological and hydrological communities would benefit from both a better understanding and awareness of what social scientists have to offer and, subsequently, from help to better define the questions that need to be answered?

Of course, there are interdisciplinary projects that do address the usability of forecasts from a social science angle, and arguably the hydrological community is already quite good at this, but maybe more could be done to engage the wider meteorological [and hydrological] communities with social science, a field that is probably quite alien to most physical scientists?

One way to do this would be to ensure that forums such as EMS (and others where HEPEX has a presence) identify, attract and involve people with the relevant social science expertise and experience; as Woolhouse pointed out, physical scientists shouldn’t leave it to the social scientists to take the lead. In the meantime though, feel free to encourage anyone involved in answering these questions to write a blog post to promote their work!


  1. I’m inclined to agree that physical scientists don’t have a good understanding of or appreciation for what social scientists have to offer. Social science is a tremendously varied field (just imagine who’d they get if some social scientists said “we need to get ourselves a hydrologist”). For example, there’s a gulf between psychologists and those studying community vulnerability.

    One unfortunate tendency perhaps is to treat social scientists as something like marketers for physical scientists’ products (“go find a farmer that wants to use my forecasting prototype”). If that’s what your project needs, there’s professional marketers for that kind of thing.

    On the other side, perhaps a frustrating aspect of working with social scientists is getting down to the action items implied by their findings, the “so what”. Here, I think it’s important to establish clear communication with your collaborators. As a hydrologist I find it hard to wade into the social science literature understand the relevance of transformative hermeneutics and neoliberal institutionalism.

  2. Nice post and comment. I also like the idea of having more bridging between meteorological and hydrological sciences and social sciences. Who should go towards the other, I don’t know. Which efforts are needed? How can we go beyond ‘yes, I would like to do’ and actually do something for an efficient collaboration?

    Difficulties are indeed present, but they may act somehow like in the case of our dialogues with economists or statisticians. They are also large fields but we get some interesting collaborations anyway. It is true that it is more ‘physics’ than ‘social sciences’ but anyway it could be inspiring to put such collaboration into effect.

    To give it a concrete start, maybe we should focus on having a dedicated session about this during the 10th anniversary HEPEX workshop (https://hepex.inrae.fr/10th-anniversary-hepex-workshop/). We could review what has been done and think about future directions, including considering this issue explicitly in one of the HEPEX topics of the Science and Implementation Plan.

    Also, the comment box in this post by Liz could be a good way to identify those interested and any emerging ideas, current projects and practices. Anyone interested in contributing could leave a comment here!

  3. Certainly something at the 10th anniversary workshop would be interesting. I guess there becomes a difficulty in convincing people to attend a workshop where they are only interested in one session – this is possibly a common problem for interdisciplinary researcher themes. However, a workshop session could be used as an opportunity to define some of the research questions and emerging ideas that we feel are outside the expertise of the hydrological community. And / or maybe speakers could give presentations over the web – does anyone have any opinions about whether this works well?

    I think the issue Thomas raises about marketing is interesting too. I would probably say that in the UK I would refer to it as PR, as ‘doing social science’ is often seen as a necessity for research council funding or to show impact: scientists do the science, social scientists take it to the end-users. Again, a misconception over what social scientists (in the academic community at least) really do. I believe in part this is perpetuated by ‘interdisciplinary’ projects that are really only multidisciplinary not interdisciplinary in nature [See this webpage for a good explanation of the differences] – as a result there is never any real understanding of each other’s methodologies.

    This leads into Thomas’ point about action items. A better understanding of methodologies at the start of projects, led by clearer communication as he suggests, would probably help better guide the research direction and manage expectations. Actually, one of my former colleagues, Sophie Haines, and I have been talking about writing a blog post about the challenges of interdisciplinary working for a little while now. Maybe we should get on with it.

  4. Very related to this discussion, see this great blogpost: “Hurricane Sandy showed limits of an accurate forecast” from Andy Freedman.

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