After the deluge, the real troubles begin

October 31, 2003

A unique centre studying the impact of floods on people is at risk if funding is concentrated. Anna Fazackerley reports

What happens to flood victims in the UK when the water levels have gone down and the news camera crews have left? Is it fair to use economic considerations in deciding which areas of the country should receive flood protection? And will the risks of flooding increase in the future?

These are the sorts of human issues that researchers at the University of Middlesex Flood Hazard Research Centre grapple with -and this makes it unique. As the centre's director, Edmund Penning-Rowsell, says: "We are the only specialist flood research centre that has this particular social and economic policy dimension." That special perspective, however, may not be enough to ensure the centre's survival if the government proceeds with plans to concentrate research funding.

During the past five years, the UK has suffered periods of particularly intense flooding. The immediate consequences are well known but the long-term effects get little attention.

Sue Tapsell, principal lecturer at the centre, is leading research into the "intangible aspects of flooding". She says assessments of the damage caused by floods have traditionally overlooked the impact on individuals' lives.

"When the floodwaters go down, that's often when people's problems really begin," she says. "There are psychological effects in the long term.

Getting your house back in order and dealing with insurance can cause more stress than economic losses."

According to the Environment Agency, one of the centre's key research clients, about 5 million people live in flood-risk areas in England and Wales. The centre is carrying out a project under the Office of Science and Technology's Foresight scheme to assess how this risk may change over the next 30 to 100 years.

One consideration will be climate change. Tapsell says some areas will be less likely to suffer flooding as temperatures rise. But there may be a higher risk in parts of northern England, East Anglia and, possibly, the Southwest. The centre will advise the government on what it should do to mitigate future flood damage.

Providing policy guidance is old hat to the centre -it has been doing this for the government since 1973. Research manager Colin Green feels this is what makes the centre indispensable. "There is a great benefit from being involved in real choices and real activity," he says. "We should be trying to leave the world a better place than we found it, which means getting involved in policy."

But it is not enough for the centre to just do short-term consultancy work for government departments and agencies, Penning-Rowsell says. The researchers want to develop theory and to look at the issues from a long-term perspective, but it is this fundamental research that is under threat.

"If you wanted to put a finger on why we need the research assessment exercise support, it is because much of our research needs to be long term.

If we don't have long-term money, there is a danger that we will get blown about by the week-to-week demands of research consultancy," he says.

His small research team is enthusiastic. Clare Johnson, a senior research fellow, says: "We're here because we love what we do. We could go elsewhere, but it's the critical mass we've got here that gives us the edge."

But the researchers fear the consequences of more concentration of research funding. The research group has risen from a 2 rating in the 1992 RAE to a 3b in 1996 and, finally, a 4 in 2001. Penning-Rowsell says: "That's a major advancement. If they decide not to fund 4s, that will be a kick in the teeth."

A reduction -or loss -of RAE cash will make life difficult. "We're not very big and we are very pressured," Johnson says. "To do that extra work without the funding would mean you basically couldn't have a life -you would have to work seven days a week."

More seriously, she says, a withdrawal of government research funding for 4-rated departments will kill the centre outright. The researchers are coming to terms with the possibility that they may fall outside the government's vision for research. "There is so much uncertainty," Johnson says. "We are trying to put ourselves into a position to compete for funding, but we realise we are a specialist centre doing specialist things."

Green argues that closure of the research centre will be a big loss. "False modesty aside, if we were wiped out, things could be done, but it wouldn't be as good," he says.

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