Social scientists provide invaluable data for disaster and hazard research as they study human predictability, risk, and the consequences of such events. However, social scientists are not the only ones researching natural or man-made disasters. Disaster research also can include teams of engineers, urban planners, risk analysts, and public health administrators.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has recognized the importance of interdisciplinary teams working together in disaster and hazard research. A recent project began with a five-year grant NIST awarded in 2015 that established the Center for Risk-Based Community Resilience Planning: A NIST-Funded Center of Excellence (NIST-CoE). Creating this interdisciplinary research team involved writing IRB authorization agreements (IAAs) through a central IRB and approving a core research protocol.

NIST-CoE researchers noted different modes of research: unidisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, and transdisciplinarity. Interdiscipinarity research integrates information, data, methods, tools, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines focused on a complex question. “The key defining concept of interdisciplinarity is integration, a blending of diverse inputs that differs from and is more than the sum of the parts,” the researchers wrote.

NIST-CoE, headquartered at Colorado State University (CSU), includes “more than 120 researchers and students across 15 universities and spans multiple disciplines within engineering, urban planning, and the social, behavioral, and economic sciences.” Its primary goal is to advance community resilience by “creating a decision support system that facilitates community planning and the adoption of best practices.”

This system is embedded in a state-of-the-art computational environment, called IN-CORE (the Interdependent Networked Community Resilience Modeling Environment). IN-CORE uses modeling to create scenarios of various infrastructure exposed to different hazards and intensities. It also uses data-based models of socio-economic networks and resilience-based performance criteria and metrics. The NIST grant was renewed in 2020 and will continue through 2025.

To simplify the process, the CSU IRB was chosen as the IRB of record for the protocol reviews under the award. A second IRB protocol and consent form were required from the academic institution that did not cede oversight. John W. van de Lindt, PhD, F ASCE, F SEI, co-director of the Center for Risk-Based Community Resilience Planning, participated in the research. He recommends setting up a meeting with the staff of the reviewing IRB to become more familiar with its process.

As the research became interdisciplinary, some teams possessed little or no experience working with human subjects and had to complete IRB process training. Before joining a NIST-CoE-funded field study, all members of the team who expected “to collect data from human subjects, view or analyze the identifiable data collected, or supervise a student in analyzing identifiable data” were required to complete CITI training and submit their course certificates to their home academic institution and the IRB research coordinators.

When establishing an interdisciplinary team and task leadership, it is important to create clear leadership structures. “We started by trying to understand vocabulary and terminology differences,” van de Lindt says. “The most important aspect is respect of one another’s methods and approaches across disciplines. No one discipline is superior to another simply because it may be quantitative vs. qualitative.”

To ensure broad representation, the initial field study team included two sociologists, two engineers, and two urban planners. Asking team members from at least two disciplines to conduct interviews and/or damage assessments allows cross-fertilization of methods and techniques, van de Lindt says. This team was given five primary responsibilities:

  • serve as primary points of contact for communication with the CSU IRB, NIST, and partner institutions;
  • educate researchers about the importance of IRB oversight and research ethics;
  • encourage ethics training and ensure all CITI certificates are up to date and in compliance;
  • create rigorous research designs and submit updated protocols and research instruments to the IRB;
  • ensure compliance with the IAA process. The leadership team met monthly to review progress, track researcher status, and develop research protocols.

The broader field study teams included researchers from NIST and 11 of the 15 academic institutions involved in the NIST-CoE. The number of researchers depends on the project and the needs of the researchers/team, van de Lindt says. “If the scope is big, then a small team wouldn’t be able to get it completed, so you may have to ‘go all in’ right away,” he notes.

The leadership team in this project also found it needed to educate the researchers about the IRB and IAA requirements. The team discussed this through semi-annual in-person meetings, phone calls, and emails with the team leads at each institution.

Knowing the IRB could take weeks or months to approve a submitted protocol, the team created a NIST-CoE “core research protocol” that could be amended with information from a specific disaster research event. The core protocol was designed using the CSU IRB form and required supplemental documents, including recruitment scripts, interview guides, and a survey instrument. “The protocol and associated research documents used placeholder text that could be amended to specify the exact location of the study, number of participants, specific research questions, and any updated forms or instruments based on the intent of the study and actual disaster context,” researchers wrote.

The core protocol underwent a full board review at CSU. During this review, the IRB asked clarifying questions and allowed the team members to respond verbally. Written revisions were made based on the IRB recommendations. The CSU IRB committee agreed to review and approve or deny any disaster amendments to this core protocol within 48 hours. “The approved IRB protocol states that access to primary data collected in the field is limited to investigators who have completed the CITI training and whose universities have signed the IAA agreement.”

In late fall 2016, van de Lindt participated in a flood disaster that tested the core protocol process. When Hurricane Matthew dumped 15-18 inches of rain onto Lumberton, NC, the soil already was saturated. At the time, there were 22,000 residents in Lumberton, a racially and ethnically diverse community with higher-than-average poverty and unemployment rates. The hurricane caused the Lumber River to flood the town, displacing residents, disrupting utility services, and closing schools.

NIST-CoE teamed with researchers from NIST’s Engineering Laboratory to conduct a field study focused on the effects of the flooding. Researchers noted two major objectives for the initial data collection:

  • to document conditions after the flood to study the town’s recovery, with a focus on improving flood damage and population dislocation models;
  • to develop a multidisciplinary protocol with a quantitative link between engineering-based flood damage assessments and social science-based interviews to capture socioeconomic conditions (e.g., social vulnerabilities related to race, ethnicity, income, tenancy status, and education levels).

Each interdisciplinary team included at least one engineer and one social scientist. Before deployment, team members participated in the field survey training session and completed IRB training. All universities involved in the study signed an IAA with CSU.

Hurricane Matthew made landfall in South Carolina on Oct. 8, 2016. On Nov. 16, the field team submitted a study amendment to the CSU IRB. The IRB responded within two days with requested revisions. The revised amendment was approved on Nov. 23, and the team entered the field four days later. “IRB approval can take weeks or even longer, but it is critical following a disaster to get the teams into the field once emergency management activities have been completed,” van de Lindt says. “Having the protocol essentially preapproved with only a modification required is optimal for these types of events.”

Preliminary findings showed dislocation probabilities were driven primarily by flooding damage. Dislocation also varied significantly among Lumberton’s racial/ethnic populations and by tenure. The field study team continued to track Lumberton’s community recovery and resilience through multiple trips to the town several years after the event. The CITI ethics training expires after three years, so any members still operating in the field or working with study data were required to retake the ethics training. The IRB also requires an annual update on information such as number of study participants, the number of field studies to be completed, and updated plans for data analysis, management, and publication. The review form is approved by the CSU IRB, and all associated documents and approval forms are submitted to the institutions covered under the IAA.

Van de Lindt says he hopes this process is changing the way teams can gather data to affect real change to communities over the long term, and to better understand how communities recover following an event such as a flood or hurricane. “Historically, disaster and hazards research has been studied in or at least near disciplinary silos, but interdisciplinary is to hazards science as diversity is to society,” he says. “It improves us as a whole. For hazards specifically, [it improves] the thought process for data collection and studying events, and ultimately creates better methodologies and solutions for at-risk communities.”