standard A radical approach to flood risk science

ResearchBlogging.orgHow do scientists work with communities that are affected by the hazards and risks they study?  Could local participants not only be involved in how science is done, but co-produce scientific knowledge alongside researchers?  Research on flood risk led by Prof Stuart Lane and Dr Nick Odoni in IHRR (‘Doing flood risk science differently: an experiment in radical scientific methodTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers) along with colleagues from Oxford, East Anglia and Newcastle universities explores these extremely important yet overlooked questions in scientific research.

Science is often thought of in terms of the ‘public good,’ but how much it actually engages with local communities in making a difference to people’s lives is less clear.  This is because the traditional view of Science (with a capital ‘S’) is that it must separate facts from values, methods from real-world problems.  This ‘received view’ of science, although it has been under attack by philosophers, historians, social and physical scientists for some time, still in many ways dominates how science is understood in society.  But alternative ideas of what science is have been popularised at least since Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  The philosopher of science Paul K. Feyerabend had a particularly  radical view of how science works:

Everywhere science is enriched by unscientific methods and unscientific results, … the separation of science and non-science is not only artificial but also detrimental to the advancement of knowledge. If we want to understand nature, if we want to master our physical surroundings, then we must use all ideas, all methods, and not just a small selection of them. Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975), 305-6

Science is not so much a gradual process towards a finite universal knowledge, but an often fragile, interactive and chaotic one that is subject to various influences.  In other words, to some degree, scientific knowledge is ‘constructed,’ it is not simply a matter of ‘reading from the book of Nature,’ but is a highly social and in many ways political process for obtaining knowledge.  This topic is still hotly debated today and while it has not necessarily affected the fundamentals of all scientific research, alternative approaches to scientific enquiry have been undertaken by this group of researchers in flood risk science.

2007 flood in Pickering, North Yorkshire, UK

Knowledge is often divided into scientific expertise and local or ‘lay knowledge,’ with the former almost always trumping the latter in controversies.  In the case of the experiment undertaken by Prof Stuart Lane and his research team in flood risk research, local knowledge became scientific knowledge – as members of the local community became directly involved in modelling flood risk where they lived.  Their study focused on the town of Pickering in Ryedale, North Yorkshire in the UK.  Pickering was hit by severe flooding in 1999, 2000, 2002 and especially hard in 2007 when 48 homes and businesses were flooded.  The Environment Agency did a cost/benefit analysis for Pickering to determine whether it would benefit from flood defences.  Unfortunately, based on their flood risk analysis the EA decided that flood defences were not appropriate despite damages to Pickering caused by flooding.  The EA did not have a scheme that could help the community of Pickering in defending its town from future flooding leaving many people frustrated with how to address the problem of flood risk:

The frustration includes the way meetings are managed to dampen controversy and the ways that knowledge is presented in ways that do not allow full scrutiny and which suppress debate (i.e. the lack of ‘nitty gritty’). There are claims that suggest there is a strong hierarchy of knowledge, with perceptions that local people were being ‘made fun of’ behind their backs, ‘discounted in an offhand way’ and a general lack of trust. (‘Doing flood risk science differently: an experiment in radical scientific method.’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. Vol. 36, Issue 1, January 2011.

“Cost/benefit analysis is not the objective methodology it’s setup to be and because it’s not, it opens the possibility for people to come along and say ‘stop, this is not objective, there are other ways of calculating the costs and benefits’,” said Prof Stuart Lane.

‘What’s happened in the UK over the last 5-10 years is effectively the nationalisation of flood risk management.  Nationalisation has reduced the ability for communities and regions to deal with politically contentious projects.’

‘What we are now faced with is a situation where there is much less ability for democratically elected local authorities to make decisions on how money is spent on ways to mitigate flood defence.  It’s now taken nationally against a supposedly ‘objective’ scheme,’ he said.

Flood risk science for Ryedale was not only about solving a physical problem it also had a political goal  —  empowering the community of Pickering to compete on the same terms as others by equipping themselves as scientists, able to make a difference:

The purpose of science, then, had shifted from problem-solving and analysis, in ways that tend to give Science a perceived hegemony in the decision making process, to the practice of science as a means of making a political intervention, making Ryedale and its local community ‘heard’ and unsettling the established positions of institutions and professionals in the decision making process. (‘Doing flood risk science differently: an experiment in radical scientific method.’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. Vol. 36, Issue 1, January 2011.

Researchers, along with members of the Ryedale community, formed the Ryedale Flood Research Group (RFRG) to better understand flood risk in Pickering and to find out what the EA may have overlooked in their cost/benefit analysis.  Developing flood models can be a highly subjective process that can fail to include important details of how rivers and lakes, for example, interact with the rest of the environment.  Flood modellers have the difficult task of making their models work and in some cases this can interfere with what they are actually modelling.

‘When you look at how the models that are used for cost/benefit analysis are applied you find they are dependent on data that aren’t always available because there are uncertainties associated with them. It requires the skill and judgement of the modeller to make the model work to get the cost/benefit analysis,’ said Lane.

By having members of the community directly involved in the project they actually developed a new model based on local knowledge for understanding how changes in the land affect flooding – the ‘bund model.’  A bund is a small raised mound that can be used to make a small storage area for water.  ‘It’s not unlike a swimming pool that isn’t sunk into the ground,’ said Lane.  Local members were frustrated with previous modelling efforts that failed to account for upstream flood storage and so the project focussed on a large number of smaller flood storage areas.

According to Lane this model involved direct input from community members part of RFRG:

‘Discussing what should go in the model, what the data needs are, whether or not you believe those data when you get them.  Discussing what the interventions are that the model should represent, so both processes and interventions.  Using the model, running it, making it break, visualisations, all of that can be done.  There is really only one step we couldn’t get the community to do — to mathematically code the model, but they could pretty much do everything else.’

And what about knowledge?  Researchers came to the conclusion that the universal knowledge of science is not necessarily more specialised than ‘local understandings of everyday life.’

‘All we were doing was a normal part of the way we’ve been trained to engage with the world around us, particularly in the West, which is in an experimental and learning fashion.  Science is just effectively a formalisation of that experimental process of learning,’ said Lane.

‘As a scientist there were certain things I couldn’t do.  I hadn’t been in Pickering during a flood, I was reliant upon secondary sources, data, maps produced by [residents] who had been flooded.  So in the same way that the community couldn’t always do everything, I can’t always do everything as a scientist and what was most important was this revealing that the scientific understanding of the local community about flooding was no different to my own, because that really unsettles this traditional separation of lay and expert knowledge,’ he said.

Transcending this knowledge barrier allowed the EA to actually serve as an intermediary after this division was breached by the RFRG.

‘We didn’t strip politics out of science we used the politics to drive the science,’ said Lane.


Ryedale Flood Research Group Website:

Lane SN, Odoni N, Landstrom C, Whatmore SJ, Ward N, Bradley S. ‘Doing flood risk science differently: an experiment in radical scientific method.’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 36, 1

Lane, S., Odoni, N., Landström, C., Whatmore, S., Ward, N., & Bradley, S. (2011). Doing flood risk science differently: an experiment in radical scientific method Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 36 (1), 15-36 DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2010.00410.x


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