When a weather-related catastrophe such as a flood or wildfire strikes an American community, it triggers a familiar set of responses. The federal government might, for example, declare a state of emergency to speed up the flow of recovery funds.
This pattern is becoming increasingly common because of climate change, says Frances Arnold, Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry, director of the Donna and Benjamin M. Rosen Bioengineering Center, and recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Instead, she says, imagine if towns and cities were armed with precision data to know their risk of such an event over the next several decades. In that case, the country could move from constantly reacting to disasters to proactively preventing more of them.
"We know that weather is changing, that extreme events are becoming more frequent," she says. "We think we can use our climate modeling capabilities to provide a public good so that people and municipalities can plan better for these disasters."
Arnold is one of three co-chairs of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), which advises President Joe Biden on ways that science can help to solve pressing problems for the nation. PCAST members affiliated with Caltech include John Dabiri, Centennial Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering; trustee Joe Kiani; and alumna Arati Prabhakar (MS '80, PhD '85), the president's science advisor. The council's newest report, released April 24, focuses on how to help communities better prepare for the risks of extreme weather and how the country could mitigate catastrophic harm.
The PCAST report was developed by a working group that was co-led by Stephen Pacala of Princeton and Jon Levin of Stanford, and included Caltech's Tapio Schneider, Theodore Y. Wu Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering and Jet Propulsion Laboratory senior research scientist. It recommends that climate modelers from multiple agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy (DOE), and NASA, combine their efforts to quantify the frequencies of extreme weather events across the U.S. between now and 2050. These can then feed so-called catastrophe models to determine how such events will damage property and harm people. The report also recommends that the White House develop a National Adaptation Plan to prepare for and mitigate these impacts.
The report imagines a hypothetical scenario for the 30,000-person fictional town of Franklinburg, Georgia. Alarmed by the increased rate of serious hurricanes and heavy rain events over the South, the town's mayor turns to the national extreme weather risk database. After learning a rainfall of more than 8 inches would cause the town's creek to overrun and flood parts of the city—and that such an event is far more likely than it used to be—she applies for federal funding to raise the height of the barrier between the creek and the neighborhood. Years later, when 14 inches of rain fall on Franklinburg, the town is saved.
"I want the mayors to say, ‘Wow, I can't wait for these tools to become available to us," Arnold says.
Biden's PCAST previously issued a report led in part by Caltech's Dabiri on how to better equip and aid wildland firefighters as they encounter a rise in the rate of major wildfires, not only in California but around the nation. The council has also made recommendations on how to revitalize research for the American semiconductor industry and addressed key bottlenecks to advancing biomanufacturing. It has held public sessions on a number of other topics, from public health to science communications to cyber resilience.
Arnold says the council's strategic approach guides its selection of topics. President Biden has outlined the core parts of his agenda, including climate change, jobs, and public health. PCAST looks for places in those areas where science is key and executive action would help.
"Our best opportunities are where science could really make a difference in people's lives and where the president might be able to step in and make it happen," Arnold says. "PCAST looks for the connection between where science is, or could be, and where policy changes are needed to benefit Americans."
"Scientists know what's possible," she says. "President Biden talks about this all the time: he says, ‘I want to hear about possibilities. America is all about possibilities.' Well, science is all about possibilities, but all those possibilities don't do you any good if they don't reach people. So, how can science and government work together?"
That drive to make a difference is why Arnold answered the call to join PCAST in December 2020, even though she worried about the huge scope of the job and the time it would require. It's a drive shared by a number of people in science, she says, especially the many Caltech students who hope to use their skills to improve lives.
"It's a no-brainer for them," she says. "They are in science because they care. They care about climate change, they care about the environment, they care about health care. They're doing science because they want to help people and the planet."
Nevertheless, going to Washington, D.C., gave Arnold a crash course in science policy and politics; she says she is drinking from a fire hose at PCAST, just as students do during their early days at Caltech. She has been impressed with people she works with in the White House, from interns to senior officials, who are extremely talented and fight for what they believe in despite the obstacles.
"My whole career, I was left alone here at Caltech to delve deeply into my science," she says. "I didn't become a division chair, or even a department chair. I didn't run big projects, and that left me time to do my own science, for which I was grateful. Now, I'm paying it back. I hope I can do a good job at it."