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15 September 2017

Your life’s work, ruined – how storms can wipe out scientific research in an instant

Some researchers face the prospect of risking their own lives to save valuable scientific research that could benefit future generations.

By Sanjana Varghese

Before the autumn of 2012, if you went into the basement of New York University’s School of Medicine in Manhattan, you would find a colony of more than 3,000 live mice. This was the collection of Gordon Fishell, the associate director of the NYU Neuroscience institute, which he had spent more than 20 years building up, and which he was using to discover how neurons communicate with other cells.

As Hurricane Sandy began to approach New York State, Fishell and his colleagues, like others in the city, made preparations for the onslaught. This meant leaving extra food and water for their colonies, and making sure that emergency power was on.

But no one anticipated the size and intensity of the hurricane. On the day it finally arrived, Fishell was forced by the weather to stay home, and to his horror he saw that his lab was now in the path of the storm. As he wrote later in Nature magazine: “We were done for. It was obvious that our labs were in great danger, and there was nothing I could do.” All of Fishell’s mice drowned. Furthermore, scientific equipment and research worth more than $20m was destroyed.

In seeing years of academic work wiped out by a storm, Fishell and his colleagues at the School of Medicine are not alone. In 2001, Hurricane Allison, a tropical storm turned hurricane, had caused similar devastation at Texas Medical Centre, the world’s largest such research centre, inflicting at least $2bn in damages. In 2011, the Japanese tsunami hit Tohoku University’s world-renowned Advanced Institute for Materials Research and destroyed some of the world’s best electron microscopes, as well as $12.5m in loss of equipment.

Such stories used to be seen as unique and unfortunate incidents. But the increasing incidence of extreme weather events over the last 20 years has highlighted the dangers of complacency.

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Not only do facilities affected by natural disasters lose decades of irreplaceable research, but many contain toxic chemicals which could be potentially deadly if released into the water or food supply. During the 2007 floods in the UK, a foot and mouth outbreak was traced back to a lab affected by heavy rain. In Houston, during the recent Hurricane Harvey, leakages from industrial facilities contaminated the floodwater. 

Gradually, university deans and heads of research facilities in the United States have realised that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is badly prepared for this kind of problem. “They had never thought of how to deal with a research loss,” Susan Berget, the vice president of emergency planning at Baylor College of Medicine told Nature in 2005. “To them, transgenic mice are a foreign concept.”

It therefore falls on universities, local communities and regional governments to ensure they are adequately prepared for disasters. A common complaint is the lack of guidance they receive. 

Often, researchers who choose to save valuable scientific research are putting their lives at risk. One particularly harrowing story was that of biochemist Dr Arthur Lustig, who spent four days in his Tulane university laboratory before being evacuated to a shelter. Despite his tenacity, he lost more than 80 per cent of his work on yeast strains, carried out over 20 years, to flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Other than the immediate, heartbreaking effects of losing research, natural disasters also pose a threat to future investment. If a region is increasingly seen as not disaster resilient, it reduces the amount of federal and private funding for groundbreaking research, as well as applications from prospective researchers.

A recent report in the journal of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine quantified this link. It found that varius tropical storms led to as many as 120 researchers losing their livelihoods. In one instance, a psychology internship for high schoolers was discontinued. 

Disasters like hurricanes and tropical storms are usually thought of as high risk but low probability events. As Bill McKibben noted in the Guardian, Hurricane Harvey was a once in 25,000 years kind of storm, but the “normal” measurements of incidence cannot necessarily be held as true anymore. Just like the rest of us, researchers will have to be prepared for every possibility.