Hurricane Sandy flooded the streets of New York City in 2012, causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage to research facilities, including those of New York University. Credit: Andrew Burton/Getty

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, the storm destroyed scientific equipment worth more than US$20 million at the New York University (NYU) Langone Medical Center. Tropical Storm Allison hit the University of Texas Health Science Center (UT Health) in Houston in 2001, and caused so much damage that some researchers had to restart their careers elsewhere. Despite such catastrophes, a report published on 10 August finds that many research institutions in the United States are still unprepared for disasters.

The report, released by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, looked at what happened to research facilities during past disasters, interviewed people about how they had changed their current policies and procedures and consulted with experts on disaster and risk management. It recommends that universities and scientists take steps to protect biomedical research from emergencies on all scales, including natural disasters, fire, cyber-attacks and terrorism.

Biomedical research is especially vulnerable to disasters, says the report’s lead author Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, a non-profit organization in Washington DC. Although insurance companies may cover expensive machinery, resources such as strains of genetically engineered mice and cells are irreplaceable, and it is difficult for insurance companies to quantify their value. Researchers at NYU lost 35,000 mice, including 751 different lines of genetically modified animals that existed nowhere else.

The report suggests ten steps that researchers, institutions and funding organizations can take to prepare for disasters and minimize the damage. It says that although every institution has different needs, all should appoint a “chief resilience officer” who can handle contingency plans for various scenarios. They should also institute mandatory training for staff to prepare them for emergencies.

Taking responsibility

One of the biggest problems is that many institutions house their animals in basements, often in an attempt to isolate the smell and to protect them from animal-rights activists, says report co-author Bradford Goodwin, former animal-facilities director at UT Health. But basements are susceptible to flooding, and can be difficult to evacuate in the event of an emergency.

Individual researchers should also take responsibility for protecting their own work, the report says. “You go into the lab every day and you worry about your lab work, but you’re making the assumption that everyone around you is protecting you,” Benjamin says. Instead, scientists should make sure their data are backed up off-site, and work with their institutions to ensure that the most crucial samples and resources are duplicated, with the duplicates stored at other locations.

It’s also important that institutions assess their individual risks and prepare for all types of potential disaster, say the report’s authors. For instance, California’s building codes already require lab buildings to withstand earthquakes. But research facilities on the US East Coast, which was unexpectedly hit by an earthquake in 2011, may not be as resilient. And because climate change means that major storms and floods are becoming more common, Benjamin says, institutions should reassess whether their risk assessments are accurate.

The report adds that funders such as the National Institutes of Health should do more to help pay for redesigns and preparedness efforts. Institutions are becoming better about disaster preparedness, Goodwin says. But most people still think it’ll never happen to them, he adds. “We’ve got to change that attitude.”