Experts explore the gap between research and practice in disaster management

Experts explore the gap between research and practice in disaster management

July 7, 20215 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic has attracted public attention to crisis management globally, writes Aston University's Oscar Rodriguez-Espindola.

Although authorities and international organisations are still actively and diligently trying to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, some of the attention is shifting towards understanding the decisions made and learning from our experience. Indeed, this experience has inadvertently shown different areas for improvement for emergency management systems.

The experience gained during the pandemic should lead governments and organisations to refine crisis management processes to prepare for challenges ahead. Leveraging research and specialist groups have been essential to support and inform decisions, as these can provide key insights guiding policy decisions.

However, the integration of research and practice should not take place at the response stage only, but as part of the core crisis management system at every stage.

It is crucial to maintain and strengthen the relationships between research and practice forged during the pandemic for different emergencies in the future. With the increasing number of different disasters happening and the threats stemming from climate change, it is not surprising that between 1994 and 2013 around 1.35 million lives have been claimed annually by natural disasters. Therefore, the value of partnerships between research and practice needs to be strengthened and implemented globally.

Academics from Aston University in the UK and the Universidad Autónoma de Occidente in Mexico have investigated the current status of the integration of research and practice for crisis management. A systematic literature review of decision models for humanitarian logistics has been used to understand the way these models have reflected the real conditions experienced by decision-makers and catered to their priorities.

Afterwards, interviews with two civil protection authorities of the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, have been undertaken to understand the conditions faced by them for crisis management, their processes and their view of decision models to support crisis management in the country. Next, a multicriteria decision analysis was used to capture their preferences regarding the objectives set for humanitarian operations to develop an analysis of their priorities.

Practice needs to be informed by research, but for that guidance to be impactful, research needs to have a thorough understanding of the conditions and challenges faced by practice. The literature focused on models for humanitarian logistics has shown that the engagement of academics with practitioners in the design of solutions to support decision-making has been declared in less than a quarter of the contributions, as shown in Table 1.

That means the design of solutions is based on prior secondary information or founded on a theoretical basis, which is not necessarily reflecting the current reality faced by authorities. It is noteworthy that there is an increasing trend in the number of articles involving practitioners in recent years, with more than half of them published in the previous three years. Despite that growth, however, the relative percentage of contributions incorporating practitioners has never been beyond 40% of all the models published in any year, which highlights that there is still a long way to go to support research development.

Table 1: Involvement of practitioners in the design of models for humanitarian logistics

Our interviews highlighted that authorities perceive the potential of systems to improve information management forecasting and decision-making, but they also unveiled the concerns about these systems providing unrealistic or unfeasible solutions.

Optimisation models are formulations in which a metric is maximised or minimised subject to a series of constraints. If the objective does not reflect the objectives and priorities of decision-makers, then results can be less relevant for decision-makers.

For instance, models solely aiming to minimise cost would struggle to give useful solutions to authorities focused primarily on providing support to all the victims equally. Therefore, the lack of involvement from decision-makers can lead practitioners to be cautious about using decision-making models.

To examine the link between contributions in the literature and the objectives and priorities of authorities, data about them was gathered and analysed using a technique known as Fuzzy-TOPSIS. The purpose was to identify the importance given to different objectives by authorities for different activities in order to rank them based on importance as shown in Table 2.

Although humanitarian logistics are characterised by a focus on the overarching ideas of saving lives and reducing suffering, it is still surprising to note that cost was the least important objective for authorities.

Conversely, more than three-quarters of the models surveyed are using cost as the main objective function, which makes it the most prominent objective in humanitarian logistics. As preferences from authorities seem considerably more focused on maintaining a reliable flow of support, with high levels of service and ensuring to reach the most affected population, our findings suggest a misalignment between research and practice.

Hence, neglecting to incorporate practitioners in decision-making models for humanitarian logistics can lead to omitting their needs and priorities, rendering the models less effective to provide workable solutions.

Table 2: Ranking of objectives from civil protection authorities

Additionally, it is important that research guides and influences practice in relevant aspects for further development. For instance, understandably, the chaotic and urgent conditions faced by authorities in humanitarian logistics force them to prioritise response over any other considerations.

Our interviews confirmed this, as they mentioned that even though sustainability is becoming a crucial element in regular times, it is undermined by the urgency of the response and only included in recovery activities.

This is an aspect worth looking into because research has shown that sustainability can be integrated into crisis management, even with the potential to provide improvements in terms of efficiency. Hence, a more thorough integration between research and practice would allow to positively influence activities on the field based on findings and results proposed and tested by cutting-edge investigations.

Overall, our findings suggest that despite the increasing remarks about the intention of joining research and practice, there is still a significant divide between them. Reducing that divide can be beneficial for both sides. More practice-informed research can allow to development of feasible solutions that can enhance the support provided to disaster victims in practice, whereas more research-informed practice can provide stronger foundations for effective decision-making and guide research to focus on key aspects to make it more impactful.

Therefore, it is essential to put more emphasis on integrating research and practice from the roots, to make their interaction more fruitful. Current trends seem to be going towards that direction, especially with the current focus on the impact on research, but further efforts are required to motivate researchers and practitioners to work together to improve crisis management.

This article was co-written by Oscar Rodriguez-Espindola, Pavel Albores, Hossein Ahmadi, Soumyadeb Chowdhury, Prasanta Dey from Aston University and Diego Chavira and Omar Ahumanda from the Universidad Autónoma de Occidente.

This work was supported by an Institutional Links grant, ID 527666998, under the Newton UK-Mexico partnership. The grant is funded by the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and delivered by the British Council. For further information, please visit

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