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Teaching Hazards Policy  

This post was editted by Katryn Wiese on Jan, 2012
Please describe any ways that you introduce policy issues into your instruction on geologic hazards. Have you encountered either opportunities or barriers to teaching about policy issues in the context of an Earth Science course?

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I'm a firm believer that it is not sufficient to just teach about Science in my Environmental Geology course. Others might argue that we are not trained to teach about policy issues and should leave these topics alone. But, it is the application of science to topical issues, that will hopefully inform public policy, that really excites the students. We do about 10 formal class debates in my Environmental Geology course on issues that have no simple solution. These include: World Population--what is the carrying capacity of Earth?, Reform of the 1872 Mine Act, Kyoto Protocols, Energy Policy in the US, Lucas v. S. Carolina Supreme Court case on the takings clause and its impact on zoning regulations.... In all these debates, I insist on the clear use of evidence (including citations from credible sources). Students must argue their assigned point of view, often taking positions that are contrary to their own beliefs. It is often the case that students end up reevaluating their own value systems (score one for liberal education), and they do seem to develop critical thinking skills (another goal for my course). I think that we do a disservice to our students, and to society, if we don't find ways to demonstrate that Science and its application is an important aspect of modern life.

You might want to check out some of the contributions from the earlier Cutting Edge workshop on Teaching Public Policy in the Geosceinces: http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/publicpolicy/index.html

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For the college level, I certainly endorse and include in my natural hazards course the approaches mentioned by Dave Mogk concerning policy issues. On the part of some students (and many citizens), there is a tendency to avoid thinking about geologic hazards because many people think "there's nothing we can do to stop them so why even think about them". The facts are that we know much more about earthquakes (for example) than we did 50 years ago and that knowledge can be used individually and collectively to build a society that is earthquake resilient. Every major earthquake over the past 100 years in California or Japan or Chile has taught us something about how to build better buildings, highways, railways, and bridges. Earthquake engineering has made tremendous strides informed by incredible advances is seismology. And public policy as exemplified by building codes are steadily resulting in a more robust infrastructure that saves lives. In TOTLE, we have teachers work with relative earthquake hazard maps and other hazards evaluation products from USGS and our state surveys so they can use those valuable teaching resources and also appreciate how geoscience research is applied to hazards mitigation.

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I'll be better equipped to answer this question at the end of this semester! I don't have much training in public policy, but I think it's hugely important to discuss in earth science classes. I've been using the SERC On the Cutting Edge website about teaching public policy to help guide some of the exercises I'll be working on with students. I'm really interested in developing something on the Marcellus Shale and the policy debates that are occurring right now pertaining to the future of hydrofracking.

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I think it is very important to bring the concept that not only is geoscience relevant to society...but that the scientists need to be active to some level in public policy. This is reflected by my actions in and outside of my academic responsibilities...which I do share with my undergrad non majors and majors/grad students: recent volunteerism with the GSA Standing Committee on Geology and Public Policy; my continued contributions to the Arkansas Governor's Councils regarding Earthquake Advisory and Pre-Hazard Mitigation in conjunction with our State Dept of Emergency Management; and past professional position with California county-level government. For my non-major sections of Physical Geology, we have an assignment later in the semester where students are guided to the GSA position statements pages. I have them select two to summarize the content, discuss what aspects of our class correspond to the selected issues, and also how it relates to their lives. Students really start showing their improved comprehension of connection and relevancy!

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Policy issues that arise from geohazards offer opportunities to teach (a) about evidence-based reasoning in general and (b) about scientific methodology. Two of my favorite hazards topics are indoor radon and asbestos, because both offer conflicting evidence about the nature of the hazard. Take radon—what action do we take when we can see that alpha radiation damages cells and produces cancer in lab animals under one set of conditions of controlled experiments and then multiple working hypotheses cannot really confirm a serious danger to homeowners based on regional variations of indoor radon and demographics? We have a wonderful case here in which conclusions based on extrapolations from controlled experiments are not confirmed by field conditions. This shows that science is anything but an exercise in convergent thinking that produces unique right answers.

Thereafter, what action do we take to create policy? Do we mandate that all homeowners spend several thousand dollars to mitigate radon to the 4 picocuries per liter levels to err on the side of safety, or are we suffering myopia by not looking at how these same homeowners might spend those same amount of money better to maintain better health in other ways?

In the end, if you have a limited budget and a home with indoor radon of 6 picocuries per liter in the family room downstairs, what are you going to do? You action must be evidence-based. Such challenges produce considerable understanding in how policies enacted are often either not based on evidence or are based on single-issue interests without considering broader perspectives.

I particularly like to use domestic dwellings as examples, because most citizens aspire to own a home, and geohazards really are a factor in evaluating that purchase even in "mundane" terrain. One need not live in a high-risk earthquake terrain to be affected in serious ways both physically and financially from decisions based on lack of evidence.

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