Biomedical Research Community Should Build Resilience to Disasters


The academic biomedical research community should improve its ability to mitigate and recover from the impacts of disasters, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The consequences of recent disasters, from hurricanes to cyberattacks, have shown that the investments of the U.S. federal government and other research sponsors — which total about $27 billion annually — are not uniformly secure.

The report recommends 10 steps that academic research institutions, researchers, and research sponsors should take to bolster the resilience of academic biomedical research. For example, academic research institutions should implement mandatory disaster resilience education for research students, staff, and faculty. And the National Institutes of Health should convene a consortium of stakeholders to discuss efforts research sponsors can take to enhance the disaster resilience of the biomedical research enterprise.

“Disasters that damage research laboratories and the institutions that house them can have enormous impacts on the safety and well-being of humans and research animals, on career trajectories, and on scientific progress,” said Georges Benjamin, chair of the committee that wrote the report, and executive director of the American Public Health Association. “Continuing scientific advancement and the promise of future discoveries will require a commitment to resilience — and an unparalleled partnership across the emergency management and academic research sectors.”

The report reviews how past disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy affected academic institutions, faculty, and research projects. The planning failures that lead to the greatest damage are often rooted in flaws that are systemic to an institution or to general practices across institutions – for example, generators and other utilities stored on low floors, research animals housed in basements, and emergency plans that do not account for employees’ inability to reach the site and implement them.

Resilience planning should be an institution-wide process that requires the full endorsement of senior leadership, the authority to establish priorities, and the necessary financial support, the report says. This planning should be aligned with the planning taking place at the local, state, and national levels (the National Preparedness System). The goal of these efforts should be to protect human life, research animals, and property and the environment and to maintain the integrity and continuity of research. Each institution should designate a “chief resilience officer for the research enterprise” — a qualified senior individual with oversight of disaster resilience efforts specifically for its research enterprise. This individual should lead a planning committee, which should work with the institution to assess the unique characteristics of the institution’s research enterprise, determine resilience goals and objectives, and develop and implement plans.

Principal investigators should work with their academic research institutions to safeguard and preserve critical research data, supplies, and reagents. Institutions should increase incentives for off-site storage and the duplication of critical samples and data. Protection of these materials and data is the responsibility of both the PI and the institution, the report says. In addition, institutions should develop performance-based standards for facilities and critical infrastructure that support their research enterprise. For example, they can ensure that disaster-resistant construction is an explicit design requirement for all new research buildings.

In addition, academic research institutions should implement mandatory disaster resilience education and training programs and integrate these programs within the broader safety, ethics, and compliance training programs for students, staff, and faculty of the research enterprise. Such programs could educate and train new researchers in disaster response and resilience upon hiring or enrollment, for example, and train key institutional responders in the Incident Command System to improve their ability to communicate with first responders outside the institution.

Academic research institutions also should acknowledge that there is an ethical imperative to conduct disaster resilience efforts to preserve the lives and prevent the suffering of research animals, the report says. Institutions should consider designating facilities that house these animals as essential facilities and strive to incorporate fail-safe design criteria. Possible actions include developing evacuation and shelter-in-place procedures, as well as procedures in case research animals escape.

Each academic research institution should think about how to best invest its constrained financial resources in the pre- and post-disaster environments to sustain and grow its research enterprise and develop an institutional financial investment strategy, the report says.  For example, institutions could identify new sources or reallocate traditional sources of capital funds to enhance disaster resilience.

Research sponsors also have an essential role in building resilience, the report says, and taking a more assertive role in protecting their research investments through initiatives and policies would incentivize resilience at academic research institutions. The National Institutes of Health should convene a consortium of research sponsors (public and private), academic research institutions, professional associations, and private-sector stakeholders to jointly discuss actions research sponsors can take to enhance resilience. 

In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services should explicitly recognize the academic biomedical research community as a subsector of the Healthcare and Public Health Critical Infrastructure Sector, and actively engage the community in sector-specific activities related to resilience. Making the academic biomedical research community more disaster-resilient through the devel­opment and implementation of risk-based protective programs and resilience strategies for infrastructure will enhance the nation’s disaster resilience and pro­tect its biomedical research investment.

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