Science in 2011: revolutions and disasters

Science and technology can seem remote from the unfolding dramas of the world but they were never far from the front line in the first months of the Arab Spring.

When revolution broke out in Egypt’s Tahrir Square in January, scientists were there in force, helping to plant the seeds of change. When dictatorship was replaced by a move towards a more democratic system of government that openly encourages debate and dissent, and is more committed to meeting the social needs of their people, science began to germinate in Egypt and elsewhere.
Thus, the swift announcements in Egypt of the planned construction of the new Zewail City of Science and Technology, of an ambitious science spending plan and, later, of a national research network. Scientists in Egypt also felt they could speak out against what they saw as inappropriate development.
And, in reformed Tunisia, plans were announced to boost its science and technology with a US$16.5 million project.
Events during next year , particularly in Egypt, may provide a case history in the links ― or otherwise ― between greater political freedom and greater support for science. Social media
At the same time, science-based technology played its part in achieving freedoms. The role of social media in fostering the revolts of the Arab Spring has been discussed exhaustively but social media ― and their versatile vehicle, the mobile phone ― achieved much in other fields as well, making 2011, surely, the year in which the phenomenon came of age in the field of development.
Whether it is has been providing access to insurance for smallholders in East Africa, or helping during disasters such typhoons in the Philippines social media has been fixing development gaps all over the world.
Indeed, science and technology have had increasing amounts to offer the fields of both disaster warning and disaster response ― giving science another reason to be mixed up in headline world events.
The Japanese earthquake and tsunami in March, for example, highlighted ever-more ingenious ideas for adding vital seconds to tsunami warning times, from the detection of airglow fingerprints in the sky to the use of radar and global positioning systems (GPS); while tsunami early warning systems were tested both at a continental and local level.
In the case of the Horn of Africa drought, scientists were there before it happened, their early-warning systems forecasting famine. But the message did not lead to action, exposing the psychological and political difficulties faced by scientists and politicians alike when talking about risks rather than certainty.
Science of disaster
Given both its successes and failures, it is little surprise that there was much debate this year about the potential use of scientific data in preventing, or giving early warning about, disasters.
An American scientist made the controversial allegation that the 2010 floods in Pakistan could have been forecast far in advance using information already existing in Europe ― a claim that annoyed meteorologists in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Thailand’s researchers have made progress on a ’super floodway’ to prevent flood damage and Philippine researchers have invented a cheaper version of landslide detectors.
The growing feeling that science has much to contribute in the prevention, early warning, rescue and recovery phases of disasters, was expressed in the Humanitarian Emergency Response Review, a report launched by the UK’s Department for International Development earlier in the year.
Meanwhile, the Integrated Research on Disaster Risk programme held its inaugural meeting in October, in Beijing, and plans to get scientists from many disciplines working together on disaster prevention.
Never far from discussions about natural disasters was the role of climate change, a phenomenon which preoccupied South Asia in particular in 2011, given its exposure to extreme weather conditions. Adaptation to these conditions and the other effects of global warming, in particular, was rarely out of the science news.
Least developed countries in the region took the lead, reflecting their growing concerns about their future.
A conference in Bangladesh underscored the idea that science is the key to adaptation strategies; while a climate summit in Bhutan saw four South Asian countries pledging to draw up a joint adaptation strategy.
A new inventory of Himalayan glaciers was released by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Nepal, while flood-hit Pakistan put up its climate change strategy for cabinet approval and is expanding its glacier monitoring network for better understanding of the impact of glaciers on flood hazards.
Further east, in the Pacific region, climate models and maps are being combined with locally generated information to try and understand the impacts of climate change.
In such ways, science has demonstrated that it has a lot to contribute to the solution of environmental problems.