Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Investing in Science for Economic Growth and Our Future in the Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

The power had gone out in our neighborhood last night in Amherst, Massachusetts at 8PM sharp.

We had been expecting that it would, at some time, given the massive size and strength of Hurricane Sandy and had planned and prepared accordingly. We had purchased supplies even in Pennsylvania, where we had spent the weekend, filling up our cars with gas, getting enough cash from the ATM machines, stocking up on water and nonperishables as well as flashlights and extra batteries.  We had worked furiously yesterday at home, taking advantage of what electric power provides and knowing full well the difficulties presented when it is not available. My husband's university and mine (UMass Amherst) were closed yesterday due to Hurricane Sandy.

Only a few days before,  I had been speculating whether this October storm would be worse than that of our freaky Halloween snowstorm of a year ago when we were without power for over 72 hours and many of our friends in Connecticut for over 8 days!

We were prepared for this one, in part, because scientists had been informing us regularly as to the status of the weather forecasts for this major hurricane. I do admit that I followed closely the predictions of the European weather forecasting computer model versus the US one and was pleased to hear when they were "converging"  since the information that was being provided allowed for emergency preparedness of many organizations and communities.

Usually, we speak of algorithms converging to a solution, but, in this case, different mathematical models were converging to similar forecasts and information for the storm that is now being estimated as having caused over $20 billion in damage and it is not even over yet. Colleges and universities have shut down for 2 days -- including 5 Ivies -- my alma mater, Brown University, the University of Pennsylvania, which we had watched row in the Schuykill rowing regatta just this past Saturday in Philadelphia, along with many other college teams, and Princeton University (that also had its own regatta on Sunday), as well as Columbia University and Yale University. The breadth of the storm is affecting 900 miles and has produced low pressures never before measured.

Millions in the northeast of the US are without power and certain colleges are still without power.

In NYC, backup generators for hospitals failed resulting in superhuman efforts by the medical staff to evacuate and to keep life support systems for patients, including newborns, functioning.

The New York Stock Exchange has now been closed for the longest period for a shutdown due to weather since 1888!  Transportation in the major cities of the Northeast from Washington DC to Philadelphia and NYC has ground to a halt with mass transit systems shut down because of the anticipated flooding, which has now come to fruition, and bridges and tunnels are closed because of the winds of over 60 miles an hour that have swept over our communities and cities. Highways that we were on just two days ago in Connecticut were closed yesterday to all traffic except for emergency vehicles as was the Tappan Zee bridge and we drove over it this past Sunday.

Beautiful shorelines in New Jersey from Atlantic City to Long Island, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, now under water, and covered with debris, will be unveiled in new realizations as the tides pull back.

Today, after the sun rises, many of us will venture out of our shelters to survey the landscape, if we can, to see if and how it has been changed by Hurricane Sandy, which, as a natural disaster, will break records in terms of economic and physical impacts.

Last night, when the power failed, my husband and I hunkered down with a big battery-operated lamp and one flashlight each to read newspapers (good backup plan since we could not then be reading news online since our power had failed). 

An OpEd in The New York Times, "Science Is the Key to Growth," by Dr. Neal Lane, a former Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Chief Science and Technology Adviser to President Bill Clinton, caught my eye. In his thought-provoking OpEd, Lane writes:

Scientific knowledge and new technologies are the building blocks for longterm economic growth -- "the key to a 21st century economy," as President Obama said in the final debate.

He goes on to emphasize that the private sector can't do it alone and although companies translate our scientific discoveries into products federal investment in R&D, especially in basic research, is critical to their success -- just think of Google, for example, which he notes was started by two former grad students, whose names are now known by everyone using a computer, who were on NSF graduate fellowships!

Investments in science create jobs in entirely new industries and we deserve and need to be again "a land of rewarding jobs."  As Dr. Lane eloquently concludes: "we need to understand the basic investment principle in America's future: no science, no growth."

The electric power in our home was restored at 4AM and I hopped out of bed to get back to work.

Without science, there would be no weather forecasting -- there would be no modern healthcare -- there would be no well-thought out and executed evacuation plans -- and the same holds for recovery and reconstruction efforts.

The disasters of last year as well as the research that we had done for our Fragile Networks book motivated me to prepare a new course, Humanitarian Logistics and Healthcare, in which the students learned about crisis management and disaster relief and one of the student team projects was on the evacuation of a hospital.  This year, although I am on sabbatical, I have been invited to teach a condensed version of the course at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, where a former doctoral student of mine, Dr. Tina Wakolbinger, who received a PhD from the Isenberg School of Management, with a concentration in Management Science, is now a Full Professor. I will have an immense amount of material to cover and will definitely include topics about Hurricane Sandy.

Science uncovers frontiers and it also helps us to undetsand what makes for resiliency and how to prepare for emergencies and crises.

As I have written before, why can't the US be more like Sweden, where I spend a lot of time as a Visiting Professor and  which Dr. Lane also singled out, along with Israel, Japan, and South Korea in terms of investments in national research and development.

Thank you, Dr. Neal Lane, for speaking out!