Doing social science research in a disaster

Doing social science research in a disaster

In times of crisis, whether our current pandemic or a natural disaster, how should social scientists manage their research of human subjects? (Lisa Shoning-Young/Creative Commons)

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Given the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and the growing prevalence of hazards in the world, many GW faculty and researchers are launching projects that deal with disasters in various forms. While the pandemic is the most pressing problem at the moment, there is growing concern with fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and the overall effects of climate change. 

Some of the recent initiatives around GW include efforts to study the response to the pandemic in Eurasia, Michael Keidar’s work to develop new medical equipment, and endeavors to understand how the crisis is affecting the Arctic. Keidar recently won a NSF RAPID award for his research to decontaminate the environment and to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus.

A key question for social scientists working with human research subjects is how to conduct research in crisis conditions. A couple of recent articles provide some good advice. 

In a recent contribution to Nature, J. C. Gaillard and Lori Peek offer a variety of ways to be sensitive to ethical dilemmas and power imbalances. Their main advice is to be sure that the research efforts keep the interests of the local population as the foremost priority. In proposing a code of conduct for researchers working in crisis conditions, they suggest: 

  1. Having a clear purpose
  2. Respecting local voices
  3. Coordinating locals and outsiders

Another recent article in Disasters by Kathryn Falb et al, offers five practical pieces of advice for Institutional Review Boards (IRB), the organizations on campus that authorize research work with human subjects. The authors offer advice on how to quickly obtain IRB approval for research, address the traumatic experience of participants, deal with difficulties in obtaining meaningful consent, and ensure reviews have sufficient knowledge of the population’s needs.

In 2019, the National Academy of Sciences published a report on “Science during Crisis.” The authors argue that “a central, curated clearinghouse for data and scientific information can improve scientific collaboration, speed up analyses, and build public trust.” In other words, we will all benefit if everyone works together. 

Crisis communications play an important role in this effort. There is a lot of incorrect information circulating about the pandemic and leaders need to identify ways to make sure that people have the facts. Evidence from past infectious disease outbreaks shows that simple interventions with correct information do not always work and we need to find more effective solutions

Hopefully careful research will make it possible to provide helpful advice in addressing the challenges posed by the pandemic and other crises our society is currently facing.  

To learn more about GW’s sustainability efforts, visit

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