3. Scientific advice in crises

No two crises are the same and, in an interconnected world, we are increasingly confronted with novel and complex crises that have spill-over effects involving multiple countries. Science advice can be useful in all stages of crisis management - preparedness, response and recovery. Different countries have developed their own mechanisms for developing and accessing the advice that is necessary in specific situations. These tend to be more or less centralised or distributed and can be difficult to understand for outsiders, which can be an obstacle for international cooperation.


3.1. The need for scientific advice in crises

3.1.1. Scientific advice in crisis response

Crises are times of intense difficulty or danger for countries, when important decisions have to be made urgently and in conditions of great uncertainty. For this report, the focus is mainly on crises caused by environmental hazards (natural, geological and hydro-meteorological) and/or health-related hazards (pandemics and food safety), although many of the observations and the analysis can be extended to other domains.

“Crisis response begins either when a significant threat is clearly forecasted, or when an undetected event or series of circumstances provoke a sudden crisis. […] Obtaining a clear operational picture of the development of a crisis is the basis for decision-making both at the operational and strategic levels” (OECD, 2015b). The global risk landscape is evolving, and the effective response to crises often requires access to specialist scientific and technical knowledge. Scientific advice, understood here as referring to the processes, structures, and institutions through which crisis managers and other decision-makers receive and can consider scientific and technological knowledge and data to make sense of, and respond to, crisis situations, can play an important role in this. Previous OECD work (2015a) indicates that scientific advice in crises depends on trusted individuals and institutions, and access to accurate, reliable and timely data and information. When these are in place, such advice can ensure that crisis managers and emergency responders have a clear picture of how an event is evolving and what impact different interventions are having.

During a crisis, reliable and appropriately presented data and scientific knowledge is important both to inform the immediate situation analysis of the crisis, and, where time allows, support modelling of the evolution of a crisis. Given the rapidly-evolving and non-linear nature of major crises, real-time data collection, analysis and interpretation can contribute to making sense of the evolution and ramifications of a crisis, as well as the impact of potential responses. In some circumstances, e.g. emerging disease epidemics, advice need to be closely linked with new discovery research and knowledge generation.

3.1.2. The multiple stakeholders of scientific advice in crises

The decision-makers that require timely, reliable, relevant technical expertise and authoritative scientific advice during a crisis include not only crisis managers, but also politicians, governmental bodies, and transnational organisations as well as private and third sector organisations, such as utilities, transport companies, and disaster relief charities. This is also true for the media, which play an important role in crisis management and public communication of related scientific information. As recognised by the OECD HLRF, “Government crisis managers need to adapt their approaches to deal with a variety of different stakeholders who all have different interests, priorities, and values. Critical infrastructure in many OECD countries is largely operated by the private sector. Citizens also tend to organise themselves to respond to crisis through civil society organisations (CSOs) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), thus adding new players to the field who expect to be consulted during preparations and utilised during operations” (OECD, 2015b). It is therefore necessary to think holistically about how scientific advice fits into the whole ecosystem of stakeholders involved in the crisis management process.

Moreover, many of these stakeholders can themselves be a source of valuable data, information, and knowledge, which although it may be of variable quality, can help provide a complete analysis of the crisis. Industry stakeholders, in particular, often have significant technical expertise and knowledge that can be crucial to evaluate the impact of an ongoing crisis, such as for example in the Icelandic volcanic eruption of 2010 where the knowledge and data of airplane engine manufacturers was needed to assess the safety of planes flying through the ash cloud. Private sector technical expertise can also be important in the response and recovery phase, as was the case following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. At the same time, as emphasised in previous OECD work, one has to ensure that clear and transparent procedures are in place to deal with potential conflicts of interest in the formulation of scientific advice.

3.1.3. Novel and complex crises

As recognised by the HLRF (OECD, 2015b: 18), several recent crises such as the Great East Japan earthquake and ensuing nuclear accident in 2011 (Box 3.1 Case study 1) or the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010 and pose new challenges to traditional crisis management. This can be because of their novel, unprecedented or unfamiliar nature, their unusual combination, their unexpectedly large scale or geographical distribution, and their transboundary nature

Some analysts distinguish between “familiar” and “novel” contingencies, when it comes to crises. The more unexpected and novel the event, the greater the uncertainty and the more ill-structured the domain in which crisis managers must operate. Coping with novel contingencies and the associated cascading shocks makes the already difficult challenges of crisis sense- and decision-making even more demanding (OECD, 2015b: 45). Globalisation, environmental, demographic and social changes, and technological advancements, all contribute to an increasingly complex landscape. Contemporary advanced economies rely on a complex and interconnected network of institutions and technological systems, such as communication and transport infrastructures, healthcare systems, global supply chains, and energy generation. Such systems are vulnerable to disruptions caused by natural or man-made disasters, and their inherent complexity introduces further sources of risk in the form of catastrophic failure of risk containment infrastructures. Increased interdependencies, both internally and externally, make societies particularly vulnerable to cascading disasters, where the effects of a local crisis can propagate at regional level or beyond and their impact be amplified across transcending economic sectors. Natural disasters affecting production in one region, for example, can cause trade disruptions leading to food shortages and unrests elsewhere in the world.

These trans-boundary effects can expand to become a “global shock”, that is, a “rapid onset event with severely disruptive consequences covering at least two continents” (OECD, 2011). This concept takes into account another pattern of such crises: cascading disasters that become active threats as they spread across global systems, such as transport, health, financial or social systems. A crisis can become trans-boundary and develop into a global shock at a later stage, through nonlinear processes” (OECD, 2015b). The complexity and interconnectedness of crises involving cascading disasters are well illustrated by the case of the Great Eastern Japan earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear incident (Case study 1).

Box 3.1 Case study 1: Scientific advice during a cascading disaster: The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima Nuclear Accident

The Great East Japan Earthquake occurred on March 11, 2011. The event began with a powerful earthquake off the north-eastern coast of Japan, which caused widespread damage on land and initiated a series of large tsunami waves that devastated many coastal areas. The number of confirmed deaths was 15,891. Most of these people died as a result of the tsunami. It also led to major accidents at the Fukushima nuclear power plants along the coast.

The diagram below illustrates the exchanges of information and data and scientific advice during the crisis. Just after the earthquake, the Japanese government established the Extreme Disaster Management Headquarters (EDMH) to respond to the earthquake and tsunami. Several ministries and agencies played their roles in responding to the disaster. It also communicated with the Japanese people, sometimes through the media. The Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) managed the Northwest Pacific Tsunami Advisory Centre (NWPTAC) which sent a tsunami warning to Pacific countries.

The tsunami caused cooling system failure at the Fukushima nuclear power plants, which resulted in nuclear meltdown and release of radioactive materials. The government established the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters (NERH) separately from the EDMH. The Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) could not keep providing timely and coherent advices to the Cabinet. Information sharing between the government and the electric power company (TEPCO), which operated the damaged nuclear power plants, was insufficient.

The Japanese government was required to communicate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the foreign countries whose citizens stayed in Japan. It provided information to other countries through: (i) the press conferences by the Chief Cabinet Secretary, (ii) briefings for the diplomatic corps by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and (iii) briefings to the foreign press by the Cabinet Secretariat. The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and other ministries and agencies also responded to individual inquiries from overseas. However, the Japanese government didn’t have enough information to share, and public officials familiar with nuclear issues were preoccupied with the response to the nuclear accident.

Under such circumstances, the US and UK Governments activated their own scientific advice mechanisms and communicated with their citizens in Japan. The US embassy recommended US citizens to evacuate the area close to the nuclear power plants. The UK Government advised UK citizens that there was no need for them to evacuate areas outside the exclusion zone. Japanese citizens could also access such information via the www, which affected their individual decisions.

Based on the lessons from this crisis, the Nuclear Regulation Authority was established in 2012 as an independent organisation with power to play a significant role in emergencies. A Science and Technology Advisor to the Minister for Foreign Affairs was appointed in 2015, and participates in global networks (e.g., FMSTNA). In addition, the Science Council of Japan revised its code of conduct for scientists, which now includes ensuring the quality of their scientific advice and explaining any related uncertainties.

Figure 3.1. Data and information flow during the Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima

Notes: 1. DGDM: Director General for Disaster Management, Cabinet Office

1. MLIT: Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism

2. GSI: Geospatial Information Authority of Japan

3. SDF: Self Defense Force

4. MEXT: Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology

5. METI: Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry

6. SAGE: UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies

7. CSA: UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser

(*) After Great East Japan Earthquake, Nuclear Regulation Authority was established as an affiliated organisation of the Ministry of Environment, separating the nuclear safety regulation section of the NISA from METI and integrating the function of the NSC in September 2012

Source: Cabinet Office, Government of Japan (2018), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of Japan (2011), Grimes, Chamberlain and Oku (2014), Nuclear Regulation Authority (2018), Oskin, (2017), and Rafferty and Pletcher (2018).

3.1.4. Scientific advice for novel and complex crises

Leaders in charge of crisis decision-making must have a good grasp of all the issues at stake in a crisis, its potential development, and the associated uncertainties. When confronted with novel and complex crises, crisis managers need to rapidly make sense of the situation, requiring them to quickly obtain, digest and channel accurate information and trustworthy expertise. This situation was aptly described by the OECD HLRF in recommending that “When confronted with unprecedented emergency, strategic crisis managers should be able to quickly identify and mobilise the most relevant and trustworthy expertise to help make sense of the crisis. Such knowledge management systems and expert networks need to be set up in advance and across multiple sectoral, professional and disciplinary boundaries” (OECD, 2015a). Technical or scientific expertise is often needed to break down the various dynamics of a complex situation into simpler scientific or technical elements to facilitate sense-making, i.e. the meaningful interpretation of research, data and information, into actionable knowledge and understanding (OECD, 2012).

The interdependencies between the natural, human, social, and technological components of crises make the contribution of a broad range of scientific and technological disciplines necessary to fully understand and address them. Scientific advice may therefore need to include not only input from the natural and engineering sciences, but also from social, human, and behavioural sciences, as well as contributions from local knowledge perspectives. Countries have different mechanisms in place to provide scientific advice to make sense of and respond to novel and complex crises, which reflect the country’s history and experience of dealing with crises.

3.2. Scientific advice in the crisis management cycle

Crisis management comprises three key phases: building preparedness of key stakeholders before a crisis; response to limit damage during the crisis; and, recovery and feedback after the crisis (Figure 3.2). Scientific and technological knowledge and advice can play important roles in each phase of the crisis management cycle, contributing to effectively preparing, responding, and learning from crises. While the focus of this report is on the response phase, and the key role scientific advice plays in sense-making during this phase, the multiple roles that scientific advice can play in the other phases of the crisis management cycle are discussed below. It is important to appreciate that in practice the distinction between these different phases is not always clear. This is case, for example, in many public health epidemics or complex cascading disasters, where elements of preparedness, response and recovery may occur simultaneously in the same or different locations.

3.3. Preparedness phase

A key tenet of crisis management is the importance of effective preparation during times of calm before the onset of a crisis. Preparedness requires developing knowledge and capacities in order to effectively anticipate, respond to and recover from a crisis (OECD, 2015b). Scientific knowledge and research expertise is needed to perform horizon-scanning activities such as the identification and quantification of potential risks, the anticipation of potential impacts and their cascading effects, as well as the identification of prevention, mitigation, and response strategies, based on experience during past crises. Scientific and technical knowledge is also important in designing, implementing and operating early warning systems. Preparedness needs to incorporate cross-border/international considerations and engage scientists from relevant countries. This can require the development of institutional agreements and cooperation mechanisms, which can then provide a basis for effective international exchange in times of crisis.

Figure 3.2. The roles of scientific advice in the crisis management cycle

Source: Authors’ analysis

Risk assessment is the foundation of crisis preparedness, and a thorough analysis of hazards, risks and vulnerabilities is key to preparing for effective crisis response. While traditionally governments have taken a ‘silo approach’ to risk assessment based on the nature of the hazard, the complexity and interconnected nature of many of current crises require a more holistic approach, such as the process of National Risk Assessment that is now regularly conducted in several OECD countries (OECD, forthcoming). Multidisciplinary scientific advice can play an important role in this phase to ensure that emerging risks are fully mapped, understood and anticipated in terms of preparedness. Mutual learning of best practices in scientific risk assessment can be encouraged through the sharing of methodologies and tools.

Identifying, structuring and keeping available previously acquired knowledge can prove invaluable in times of crisis. For example, existing models of the potential impacts of disasters and their physical, economic and social impact can help to prioritise responses when hazards strike again. It is therefore important for researchers, scientific advisors, and crisis managers to work closely together in times of calm to identify gaps in the existing knowledge, develop research strategies to address such gaps, conduct the research, make the outcomes routinely accessible, and design strategies to mobilise and share such knowledge in times of need. These latter strategies should specifically address the needs of crisis managers.

Overall, setting-up appropriate scientific advice mechanisms for crisis response in times of calm, and ensuring their preparedness, will ensure that they can be effectively deployed in times of need to respond to a crisis. This can be promoted by involving these mechanisms in training exercises and drills as further discussed ahead (see 5.8). Researchers and scientific advisors should not only engage in training exercises, but can also help design rigorous exercises and play a role in promoting them (Koshland Science Museum, 2018). Mutual understanding and trust among stakeholders are vital to ensure the optimum provision and uptake of scientific advice for effective crisis management, and the necessary relationships need to be nurtured long before the onset of crises.

3.4. Response phase

The main focus of this project and report is the role of scientific advice during the response phase of a crisis. This is the period when decisions have to be made rapidly and are ideally informed by the best available scientific data, information and advice. This is also sometimes referred to as the sense making period with the role of science being to make sense of what is happening and communicate this clearly so that appropriate decisions can be made. In some acute crises this period is short, e.g. a matter of hours or days in the case of some hydro-meteorological events. In other cases, such as the development of emerging disease pandemics, it can last for weeks or months, with sense making being a conditional process that is continuously revised as the crisis evolves and/or new knowledge becomes available.

The nature of the crisis and location of relevant scientific expertise and knowledge are important determinants of how scientific advice is integrated into decision making during the response phase of a crisis. If one considers the two main areas of focus for this report the situation is very different. In hydro-meteorological crisis response, the majority of the scientific data, modelling software and expertise is provided by operational systems and government scientists. This feeds into Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and crisis response protocols and, where necessary, bi-lateral and multi-lateral agreements are normally in place to ensure international exchange of data and information. In most OECD countries, the early warning and response mechanisms for familiar hydro-meteorological events are routine and standardised, with scientific advice mainly provided by mandated government scientists. In contrast, for new health threats and pandemics, the necessary scientific data and information for sense-making is frequently distributed across different public agencies and academic institutions and new research insights are required. There are different sources of competing advice and the SOPs, protocols and frameworks that exist are not so easily applied across all these sources.

As crises become more complex, or for cascading crises (see earlier), the situation analysis is proportionally more complicated and the sources and nature of required scientific inputs is more diverse and distributed. Coordination and/or control of scientific advisory processes in order to ensure that the best available scientific evidence is rapidly available to crisis managers during complex crises is a challenge. When the crisis is trans-national, and different national scientific advisory systems become engaged, this challenge is considerably amplified. Trusted knowledge brokers - individuals or institutions that bridge the science-policy interface and operate nationally and/or internationally - can play a critical role.

Crisis response situations can also provide the setting for valuable research that would be impossible under normal circumstances. Examples of such research include field trials that can only be carried out during the actual outbreak of a disease or the gauging of hydraulic models during real flood events. Such studies can provide invaluable knowledge to both manage the immediate situation and to prepare for, build resilience or avoid future crises. In order to carry out such rapid response research, appropriate arrangements need to be developed in advance. Measures, such as the development of regional networks of laboratories for analysis and the strengthening of field research capacity, can improve the preparedness to both monitor the evolution of a crisis and to carry out research during crisis situations. Rapid response mechanisms are necessary to finance the necessary research during crises and frameworks for the immediate sharing of new research insights, data and information are required. These issues are discussed in chapters 4 and 5 of this report.

3.5. Recovery phase and feedback

After a crisis has come to an end, useful learning can be drawn to improve future crisis response. Scientific analysis from disciplines such as organisational psychology, behavioural science and political science can provide important reflective insight into how crises are managed and how scientific knowledge is mobilised, used and communicated in the process. Scientific insight can also help elucidate what factors could have helped in predicting and forecasting the crisis, which can help to improve the preparedness to future events (Integrated Research on Disaster Risk, 2018).

Rigorous analysis and knowledge of what has worked (and what didn’t) in a specific context can provide useful lessons for those involved in the management of crisis, and facilitate learning across different sectors. Knowledge gathered during a crisis and the lessons learned from it need to be structured, recorded, systematised, preserved for the long term, and disseminated to allow mutual learning and improve crisis management and the contribution of scientific advice in that context (OECD, 2014). For example, scientific advice from UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) is made available to the public after an emergency is declared over. Recording and sharing previous experience is especially important for rare events for which collective memory can be easily lost over generations. This can be promoted by developing transnational knowledge networks, and fostering a corporate memory among crisis managers and advisors. Mutual learning can also be a part of developing shared strategies to produce and use scientific advice for crisis management between interdependent countries or those facing similar challenges.

3.6. Mechanisms for scientific advice in crises

3.6.1. Crisis management mechanisms

All OECD countries have crisis management mechanisms in place, which are often tailored to specific hazards, such as health-related or hydro-geological emergencies. As discussed above, however, complex and novel crises require a whole-of-government approach to strategic crisis management that goes beyond individual hazards and sectors.

A survey conducted by the OECD HLRF (OECD, 2017) concluded that different models exist to engage the whole-of-government approach across sectors and levels in crisis management. The survey found that overall countries “have implemented one of two models. On the one hand, centralised administrations rely on vertical co-operation, with scaling-up mechanisms automatically activated from the top when local capacities are not capable of managing the crisis on their own (e.g. in France or Denmark). On the other hand, more horizontal institutional systems rely on subsidiarity and sectoral responsibilities, with local governments being the first in charge of the emergency response, requesting support from higher levels of government when their capacities are overcome by an emergency. That is the case for instance in countries that work through federal governments, such as in Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Switzerland or the United States, where states or other forms of sub-national governments often have the primary responsibility to manage crises affecting their territory and are the first responders to disaster and security incidents.“

OECD has previously recommended “governments to develop crisis management capacities to cope with the complexity, novelty, ambiguity and uncertainty that characterise many modern crises.” Previous work concluded that “A few highly advanced Respondents [countries] have set-up such knowledge management systems and expert networks across multiple sectoral, professional and disciplinary boundaries. These networks aim to take account of the context-dependant characteristics of each crisis, such as the organisational and political contexts that enable and constrain the decision-making ability of leaders and advisors”. However, many countries are currently lacking such systems.

3.6.2. Institutional mechanisms for scientific advice in crises

Mechanisms to ensure the routine provision of scientific expertise and advice to policy- and decision-making can take a range of institutional forms. These include for example individual scientific advisors, expert committees and scientific councils, specialised agencies and scientific academies (OECD, 2015a). The specific advisory mechanisms in place in a given country reflect its political and institutional culture. Such routine advisory structures also play a role in scientific advice during crises situations but, as discussed in the 2015 OECD report, during crisis situations, when advice is needed quickly to inform response management, routine advisory processes are usually neither entirely appropriate nor entirely adequate (OECD, 2015a). The preferred mechanisms for scientific advice in crises vary not only between countries, but also between sectors within a country depending on the nature of the crisis at stake.

The survey conducted for this project supported the findings of this earlier work, and indicated that many countries lack formal institutional mechanisms at the national level that are clearly identified as having a role in coordinating scientific advice and integrating data and information during crises. Some country respondents did not describe a formal, institutionalised mechanism but further analysis showed that a system was in place, albeit without a name or statutory status. Informal exchange and advice channels (for instance colleague-to-colleague) play an often-underestimated role in informing sense-making in the context of crisis management. The uncharted nature of these mechanisms however can make it difficult to assess their reliability from the outside.

When it comes to the management of novel and unexpected crisis only a very few countries, such as the UK, have permanently established scientific advisory mechanisms, in the form of standing bodies responsible for the provision of scientific advice and the coordination of input and analysis. These mechanisms can be activated in crises, and can draw upon and coordinate input from large networks of experts and organisations from across disciplines and sectors. Other countries set up temporary central coordination units on an as-needed basis in response to specific crises. In these circumstances, the structure of a scientific advice mechanism adapts to, and reflects, the specific strategic crisis management mechanism put in place. Others, such as for example the USA and Germany, have more distributed systems, relying on pre-established networks of experts and organisations that can cooperate to provide advice during crises.

In practice, most countries have some form of hybrid system that combines centralised and decentralised elements and is able to scale-up as necessary. It should be acknowledged however that in many less advanced countries limited institutional structures exist to respond to crisis situations and to provide the scientific advice necessary to support this response. This makes transnational scientific co-operation particularly important, but also especially challenging when crises occur in these less advanced countries.

Different institutional arrangements for the provision of scientific advice to the management of complex and novel crisis have their potential strengths and weaknesses, which are themselves very context dependent (Table 3.1). For example, more distributed systems such as in the USA, in which multiple agencies are considering the same data and information, provide a layer of quality control through mutual scrutiny. Redundant capacities in critical components such as data and information collection and analysis systems can increase reliability and resilience of the system during crises. On the other hand, more centralised mechanisms such as in the UK can provide faster response and a clearer interface with decision-makers at the centre of government. These differences in institutional arrangements have important implications for transnational collaboration and for information exchange, as those involved in providing advice in one country might not be able to easily identify their counterpart in a different institutional system, which can exacerbate difficulties in identifying essential data and information and ensuring efficient co-operation. This is a particular challenge with distributed advisory systems.

Table 3.1. Characteristics of distributed and centralised scientific advisory processes for crises



Activated via local crisis responders

Top down activation via central Government

Well adapted to federal decision-making systems

Rapid response at central Government level

Local ownership and legitimacy

Clear interface with central decision-makers

Multiple contact points

Single contact point

Redundancy and resilience

Efficiency versus single point of vulnerability

Cross-checking and reproducibility comparison

Central (exclusive) quality control

Local familiarity with issues

National consensus

International contact complex

International contact straightforward

Customised to a specific type of crisis


Flexible and independent

Planned and coordinated


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