Overview of the Alliance

Individuals who study natural hazards and disasters, as well as those working in related operations and response domains, public and private, realize the immense difficulty of understanding and predicting environmental threats, communicating their dangers, anticipating response ranging from the individual up to communities and beyond, and dealing with the complexities of recovery. This difficulty stems principally from two factors: first, the inherently complex nature of the challenges themselves, and second, the use of a reductionist approach that involves deconstructing such challenges into more tractable sub-units and addressing each in mostly conventional topic domains. Such an approach, while completely sensible, inherently leads to disconnects among fundamentally connected elements. As such, it leads to progress on separate pieces individually rather than on the problem as an interconnected whole. Only via a truly integrative approach – in which researchers, operational public and private sector practitioners, regulatory and funding agencies, foundations, philanthropists, and entrepreneurs come together via an appropriate organizing mechanism – can we as a global society truly address the horrific loss of life and property, and the associated economic and social disruption, wrought by extreme environmental events.

Yet building such an interconnected framework of sectors poses significant challenges. Institutional, financial and philosophical barriers arise when working across disciplines or organizational boundaries. Seemingly straightforward concepts are not simple at all and often have vastly different meanings when applied across different topic domains or sectors of society. Although some progress has been made during the past several years in addressing these and related issues – particularly with regard to integrating social, behavioral and economic sciences (SBES) with physical science and engineering via workshops, conferences, and even centers – no large-scale, community-wide organizing mechanism yet exists to do so, despite repeated calls for it. And, some of the other sectors noted above frequently are absent yet have a strong desire and present a compelling need to be involved.

With strong encouragement from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – and consistent with the importance placed upon integrative approaches to environmental challenges by the U.S. National Academies – the national community has developed a framework for addressing the need articulated above. Known as the Alliance for Integrative Approaches to Extreme Environmental Events (or more simply, the Alliance), this framework is an informal public-private partnership comprising researchers from social, behavioral and economic science (SBES) disciplines, engineers, mathematicians and technologists, research and operational meteorologists, emergency managers, and other strategic partners including Federal agencies, non-profit organizations, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, and the private sector. Funded initially by a $3 million private gift, which is a seed planted with the intent of catalyzing long-term funding from many other sources in a true multi-sector partnership, the goal of the Alliance is twofold: first, to help members of the aforementioned broad community overcome obstacles to meaningful interaction so that progress can be made on challenges holistically, and collaboratively, in their full complexity utilizing all resources available; and second, to facilitate interdisciplinary research, and the associated transition of research outcomes to practice – including rapid technology prototyping and insertion – in ways that advance the Nation’s agenda to substantially reduce societal harm from extreme environmental events.

The strength of the Alliance lies in its philosophy of serving as an organizing mechanism to bring sectors, organizations and individuals together to work in an integrative fashion, its emphasis on rapidly translating outcomes into operational practice, its community-based governance, and its emphasis on supporting activities that provide practical benefits for addressing needs that heretofore have gone unmet.

This document, developed by the community, establishes the initial concept of, and organizing & start-up plan for, the Alliance. Like a corporate business plan, it serves an important and necessary road map for progress. Yet also like a business plan, it represents only what can be known and envisioned at the beginning, with the ultimate outcome likely to be different as the effort unfolds and learning takes place.