Friday, 19 September 2014

Fortieth Anniversary

On 19th September 1974, I set out from University College London bound for the Mezzogiorno in order to start my field research for a PhD in geomorphology. Hence, today marks the 40th anniversary of my involvement with Italy, something that has grown and diversified over the years.

I am now bilingual in Italian and able to give as good as I get in three dialects. I am familiar with 147 of the 150 largest cities and towns of Italy, and the three I have never visited (Vibo Valentia, Iglesias and Carbonia) are small and remote. I know all 20 regions and 109 provinces (my favourite place is Sabbioneta, followed closely by Montepulciano—but don't tell anyone!). Twenty-four years ago I wrote and published my first book in Italian, which appeared in hardback in Bologna. I now have family and property in Italy and a long experience of working with and within Italian universities, schools and other institutions from the far North to the Deep South and islands. For five years I occupied the position of Scientific Director in the Region of Lombardy's Advanced School of Civil Protection. In past years I have had a (rather disjointed) dialogue with the current Prime Minister and I have a rich but mixed experience of appearing in Italy's mass media.

For the past 700 years there has been nothing on Earth quite like Italy. Italians regard their nation with an odd mixture of pride and shame. It has given the world cultural riches beyond anyone's wildest imaginings, but it has also consistently defied logic. In short, it has disappointed as much as it has inspired. Nevertheless, many of the stereotypes about Italy are no more than that. It is a country of individualists, and one that tolerates individualism more than do most other nations, but it is capable of extraordinary feats of organisation and collective effort. In the applied part of my field, civil protection, it has created the best models and produced the greatest synergies. Yet one consistent trait in Italy is that it is nearly perfect, but, in the modern world, the utter inability to remove that word 'nearly' leaves it hanging on the brink of great achievement. A Swiss professor of pathology once told me that, in his opinion, Italy is the place where genius is closest to madness. He was from the German-speaking part of his country and his view was entirely consistent with the Swiss love of order and predictability (Canton Ticino, where they speak a sort of Italian, is regarded by some Swiss as the Alabama of Switzerland). But perhaps he had a point.

One effect of the individualism is that, more than any other country, Italy is the land of diversity. It is usually amusing to watch the incomprehension between northerners and southerners, at least if it is benign rather than unpleasant, as they struggle unsuccessfully to understand each other's cultures. It is disorientating to ask for directions in Val Venosta only to find that one's German-speaking interlocutor pretends not to understand any Italian—and yet on the other side of the valley they speak Ladin (a mountain language) and no German. It is amusing to see the disdain that the people of Livorno have for the inhabitants of nearby Pisa, and how that is represented in the Vernacoliere, their monthly satirical magazine, or the haughtiness of the Florentines when they regard the Sienese, and the reciprocation of the latter. Occasionally, the safety valve lifts (on social media, perhaps) and out boils all the suspicion, incomprehension, distrust and disdain that each city state, or pocket-handkerchief territory, harbours for the rest of the country. I had an early introduction to this when, in 1974, I was taken to see a self-proclaimed 'republic' in the hills of the Province of Matera founded by a man who fell out with the administrations of the towns of Tricarico and Grassano and set up his own fiefdom at the crossroads half way between them. None of the local inhabitants thought this unusual.

It is always interesting to see how Italians regard the British. The official ties between the two countries are much less significant than the informal ones. The United Kingdom is a sort of alter ego to Italy. It is not always admired, and not always respected, but it is never ignored. Italian knowledge of Britain is generally limited to London, Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton and Plymouth (perhaps I should add the indigenous Italian community of Bedford, but it is in danger of being eclipsed by Asian Britons). This represents a sort of colonisation attempt, and the rest of the country is hic sunt leones. Indeed, Italian journalists have written books to explain Britain to Italians, from which one would think that there is no inhabited land north of the Severn-Trent line—works that are almost as bad as the Brits' literary efforts to explain Italy (it cannot be done). I once met an Italian in Dorchester, who was completely disorientated and trying to act like some brave pioneer. I did also once meet one who toured the Scottish Highlands in a Fiat cinquecento (the original model), but that was regarded as equivalent to going the wrong way across the Sahara Desert.

My grandfather worked for Negretti & Zambra, the Clarkenwell instrument makers, which was eventually swallowed up by another British company—Marconi. In 1944, my father did a stint in the Italian Navy aboard ships such as the Reale Incrociatore G. Garibaldi, and the minesweepers Indomito and Fenice. Fascism had collapsed and they used these ships in British convoys. It all amounted to a certain predisposition to italianesimo, acquired, I suppose, by cultural osmosis. The dilemma of those of us who are propelled into new cultural domains is that we can never completely abandon our roots and never completely assimilate the new environment. For instance, I can never understand why there have to be at least three chat shows on Italian television every night of the year, nor why they always consist of a table full of people shouting at each other and not listening to what anyone else says. After a long sojourn in Italy, I once interrupted a speaker at a round table discussion in Germany. The consensus was that I should abjectly beg forgiveness of all participants. In Italy, he who shouts loudest wins—probably using a mobile phone in a crowded place. And, by the way, on one occasion, I heard a phone play a can-can during a benediction by the Bishop of Prato. Thank God it wasn't a funeral!

In 40 years some habits die hard. Weeks ago I overdid it on Amaro Lucano, an after-dinner liqueur that my father once described as "alcoholic syrup of figs", referring to the laxative he was given as a child. It was pure nostalgia, as I did my PhD research on soil erosion that eats away at the ground around the Amaro Lucano factory at Scalo Pisticci in the Basento Valley of Basilicata, southern Italy, at least 86 km from the nearest city. Forty years of momentous change have passed, but at least Amaro Lucano is the same, although possibly a little watered down compared to how it was in 1974, or 1894?

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The Pros and Cons of European Research on Disaster Risk Reduction

The European Commission (EC) has pledged €78 billion to support projects under the 'Horizon 2020' Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development of the European Union. After seven previous framework programmes, perhaps it is time to take stock as the latest one begins and the frenzy of proposal writing gets underway.

On the positive side, European funding has propelled institutions towards a form of collaboration in which there are bound to be synergies. For some countries, and many institutions, framework programmes such as FP6, FP7 and H2020 are the only source of external funding to which they can apply. These programmes have moved the agenda decisively towards applied research and evaluation of the utility of research products. They have contributed to European unity and striven to satisfy the needs of European citizens. In the field of disaster risk reduction, there have been substantial phases of research into vulnerability and resilience, and these have helped create a body of methodology and have illustrated how it can be used by risk managers in the public and private sectors. The funding has produced a rich variety and copious number of forums in which the problems of managing risks, dealing with disaster and recovering from impacts have been debated very thoroughly.

Despite these considerable advantages, there are drawbacks. To begin with, the templates imposed by the EC for applications, the submissions procedure and the proposal evaluation mechanism are all suitably rigorous, but they tend to encourage mediocrity and discourage real innovation. Because the investment of large sums of money is involved, research funding decisions tend inherently to be conservative and averse to risk. Most European projects succeed in achieving their aims and some fail, but are the aims really worthwhile? All the projects contain elements such as a website, management structure, software, oversight committees, "stakeholder" meetings, brochures, fliers and work-packages (how, exactly, can work be "packaged"?). Are all such elements needed, and what differentiates one project from another?

The inherent conservatism and conformity tend to filter out creativity and the kinds of risk-taking that lead directly to innovation. The net result of these projects is a massive duplication of research output. In part, this stems from the rigid structure imposed on the research design and precise requirements concerning the applications of research; in part it comes from the conservatism of the evaluation process; and in part it is a result of the dilution of initiative by the need to collaborate on all matters, large and small.

From FP6 to H2020 there is a trend towards increasing the applied component of research projects and placing a heavy emphasis on technological development. In some instances, this has had the effect of 'hollowing out' research and creating fresh sources of vulnerability to disaster (Figure 1). Many FP7 and H2020 projects involve the manufacture of software and hardware designed to support risk and emergency managers. Seldom is there any evaluation of whether the ever more sophisticated routines and gadgets are actually more efficient than pencil and paper or word of mouth. Moreover, there is frequently a risk that induced dependency on sophisticated electronic equipment or routines will leave the users vulnerable to the effects of the failure of such technology during a crisis. If the equipment gives erroneous results, the operator does not understand exactly how to use it, or, quite simply, a battery runs down and there is no means of recharging it, then the result is, at best, inefficiency and at worst an inability to carry out vital tasks.

Figure 1. How funding arrangements are 'hollowing out' research.

Besides the common lack of evaluation of the effectiveness of technology, it is quickly outdated by the development of new devices, systems and platforms. Either it will become redundant or large amounts of money must be spent on adapting it, which in the majority of cases is unlikely to happen because the project that produced will probably end before the adaptation is needed. In addition, the more sophisticated a technology is, the more training it requires in order to be used. The training infrastructure may be poorly developed and the result may be either under-use of devices and software or the emergence of a technological elite upon whom the non-users depend.

One of the greatest risks of this situation is that over-sophisticated responses will be developed to essentially simple problems. "Stakeholder interest" tends to be fickle and so does the involvement of target "end-users". Although many projects go to elaborate lengths to understand the needs of the users, in many cases there is no guarantee that the initial rush of enthusiasm will be followed by sustained adoption of what is proposed. The criterion for many end users is whether a device, routine, methodology or other supposed innovation makes their work easier or more successful. Over-sophistication obscures rather than answers that question.

European research financing has spawned a large number of private institutions that feed on it. Some provide technological services and some actively do research. Some exist merely to create research proposals. The level of competency of these organisations varies more than that of the research universities, and so does their ability to manage research projects. Although the EC's aim of including "small and medium size enterprises in research is laudable, it surely did not mean that the process should create such institutions as self-perpetuating entities.

One thing that all institutions seem to have in common is a rush to publish. There is an assumption, which is largely false, that productivity equates with copiousness. Applied to post-disaster investigation, some have aptly termed this the "gold-rush mentality" (Gomez and Hart 2013). This prompts a consideration of the general state of disaster studies, as they are the context in which European projects in this field are set.

Ballooning publication rates are fuelled by several trends. One is the tendency to publish ever earlier in one's career, which makes a mockery of experience, and possibly also of training. It reduces the role of accumulated wisdom and narrows the perspective by excluding large bodies of previously acquired knowledge. It is thus hardly surprising that disaster research tends to "reinvent the wheel" by repeating research. A good example of this is the small symposium on risk perception and management in relation to Hurricane Sandy published in Risk Analysis journal (Cox and Lowrie 2014). The findings of the perception research essentially replicated those obtained after Atlantic hurricanes  in previous decades (e.g. Beatley and Brower 1986, Cross 1990)  Another is the strong connection between academic publication and personnel decisions. A third factor is the effect of highly misleading bibliometric measures (Moustafa 2014).

Disasters are becoming ever more sophisticated phenomena, with subtle and complex changes in their occurrence and their context. Studies of disaster seem to become ever more summary and focussed on elements that contribute little or nothing to the broader picture and the development of theory. One has the sensation that we are moving away from understanding disasters, rather than becoming more knowledgeable. As disaster research has increased, so the overall quality has decreased, giving rise to a widening per capita 'inspiration gap' among researchers. Per person, we seem to know less than we did decades ago, not more (Figure 2).

Figure 2. The 'inspiration gap' in disaster research.

Over the last 30 years, disaster research has shied away from facing up to its own fundamental issues: human rights, moral disengagement, ethical issues, fairness, equity and stability in human communities. Disasters can only be understood in the context of a society that is becoming less and less fair, and in many parts of the world more and more unstable. The gap between, on the one hand, expectations and recommendations (i.e. diagnosis and proposed cure) and, on the other, action—or the lack of it—on the ground, has never been higher. Hence, I believe that research, in Europe as elsewhere, has to be more creative, innovative, broadly based and realistic than it currently is. To achieve this, the funding mechanism needs to be adjusted, and that will require some radical departures from the current model.


Beatley, T. and Brower, D.J. 1986. Public perceptions of hurricane hazards: the differential effects of Hurricane Diana. Coastal Zone Management Journal 14: 241-269.

Cox, T. and K. Lowrie (eds) 2014. Papers on risk perception and Hurricane Sandy. Risk Analysis 34(6): 981-1094.

Cross, J.A. 1990. Longitudinal change in hurricane hazard perception. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 8(1): 31-48.

Gomez, C. and D.E Hart 2013. Disaster gold rushes, sophisms and academic neocolonialism: comments on ‘Earthquake disasters and resilience in the global North’. Geographical Journal 179(3): 272-277.

Moustafa, K. 2014. The disaster of the impact factor. Science and Engineering Ethics DOI: 10.1007/s11948-014-9517-0. (Impact Factor: 1.516)