Michelle Yang / Sun Contributor

Caltech researcher Dr. Lucy Jones lectures on natural disaster resilience.

October 11, 2018

Seismologist Stresses Open Dialogue Between Scientists and Policymakers

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Prominent seismologist Dr. Lucy Jones spoke about the importance of scientific communication in order to reduce the damage caused by natural disasters as part of the 19th Robert L. Schiffman ’44 Geotechnical Colloquium at Phillips Hall on Thursday.

Jones, a disaster-risk expert and seismology research associate at Caltech, has worked on integrated disaster scenarios at the U.S. Geological Survey and is the founder of the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society.

“In the light of recent hurricanes in the United States as well as other calamities around the world like the devastating tsunami in Palu, Indonesia, conversations on Disaster Mitigation are increasingly more relevant for Cornell as a cross-disciplinary incubator for innovation,” said Rhea Lopes grad, who is part of the Disasters Working Group at the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.

Jones began the talk by outlining the history of risk-reducing legislation in Los Angeles and southern California. She then went on to detail her experience as part of the USGS, where she led a group of over 300 scientists, engineers, and others to study the likely consequences of a 7.8 magnitude earthquake along the San Andreas fault.

Throughout 2014, Jones said she held over 130 meetings with constituents, stakeholders, experts and design teams in an effort to create a disaster resilience plan for Los Angeles.

“We tried hard to focus on our city as a system that we needed to keep working and we talked about urban disaster resilience: having a society that still functioned after the event,” she said.

These discussions culminated in a report of 16 recommendations, 15 of which were taken.

As a result, over 15,000 buildings will be retrofitted to reduce life safety risk, and plans are in place to install seismic-resistant water pipes along the San Andreas fault.

However, there is still more work to do, according to Jones. She explained that while most modern and retrofitted buildings are unlikely to pose life safety threats, they cannot functionally recover after an earthquake since “half of the buildings can’t be used after the earthquake,” resulting in huge economic losses.

While legislation addressing this was recently vetoed by California Gov. Jerry Brown (D-Calif.), Jones is hopeful that new leadership will be receptive.

Jones concluded her talk by summarizing what had worked in her approach and why, highlighting the importance of effective communication, likening the situation to a pedestrian about to be struck by an oncoming car.

“You would yell out, ‘Hey, there’s a car coming!’; you would not yell, “Hey, remember force equals mass times acceleration!’” she said. “It’s the relevant science, but it’s not what they need to hear at that time.”

Jones hopes to create a more open dialogue between scientists and policymakers by making both the social and economic stakes clear, treating the scenario as a story instead of a probability and giving stakeholders a sense of engagement and participation.

“The process is not us telling them what to do, but rather helping them understand the implications of our research,” she said.

Jones will be holding a public discussion and signing for her recent book, The Big Ones in Mann Library at 12:15 p.m on Friday, Oct. 12. She will also be speaking again later in the day at 4 p.m. in Warren Hall as part of Cornell University’s Community Development Institute.