Dr Carina Fearnley, UCL Warning Research Centre

Meet the partners
8 September, 2023
Author name:
Dr Carina Fearnley
Dr Carina Fearnley is Associate Professor in Science and Technology Studies at the UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies and Director of the UCL Warning Research Centre

Today we have the pleasure to introduce you to Dr Carina Fearnley, Associate Professor in Science and Technology Studies at University College London (UCL), and Director of UCL’s Warning Research Centre (WRC). Founded in 2020, the WRC is an interdepartmental centre, bringing together domestic and global expertise on warnings, working with businesses, government, non-governmental, and intergovernmental organisations to address the growing need for effective warning and alert systems via cutting-edge research, policy guidance, applications, and collaborative expertise.  

From 11-13 September 2023, the WRC will be hosting its first ‘Creating Effective Warnings for All Conference’, focussing on designing, implementing, and maintaining effective warnings, for all. The conference promises to provide an engaging array of sessions that centre on the critical question: what makes warnings effective for all? We interviewed Carina to find out a little more about the WRC and why it joined REAP. 

Read more on the conference here: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/sts/warning-research-centre/creating-effective-warnings-all-conference  

WRC conference

1. Tell us about how the Warning Research Centre came about, and why it is so important? 

The Warning Research Centre became an idea around 2010 towards the end of my PhD studies. Witnessing the tragedy of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, I could see the critical importance of effective warning systems, and yet they were not being designed and built based on robust and systematic links between research, policy, and practice across relevant disciplines.  

This played out again during the COVID-19 pandemic, and I could see the UK COVID-19 alert level system would not succeed. So much warning knowledge sits in silos via the agencies that manage each hazard, but I realised that by sharing knowledge of warnings across different hazards we could develop better, more robust systems, and ones that cope with multiple hazards. Given the complex and multiple disciplines, actors, and institutions involved, warnings require an inter / trans disciplinary approach to ensure silos are broken down, and that research is oriented towards real-world problems and sustainable solutions. I have dedicated my entire research life to warnings and interdisciplinary studies, so the time seemed right… 

Together with Prof Ilan Kelman we decided to set up the University College London (UCL) Warning Research Centre (WRC) to find ways of attracting attention to the importance of warnings. The WRC brings together experts from across UCL and globally to provide the very best and latest research on warnings, and is the only such dedicated facility in the world providing a community for researchers and practitioners to share ideas and develop innovative solutions to complex real-world problems. The WRC also provides research expertise, teaching excellence, policy advice, and public engagement in relation to warnings, with the ultimate goal of becoming a global centre of excellence around warnings. The WRC was officially launched by Mami Mizutori (UNDRR) in 2021. 

Mami Mizutori UCL WRC

2. What are your hopes for the Creating Effective Warnings for All conference? 

We want to break down silos between stakeholders, sectors, hazard types, geographies, and technologies used in warnings. From this, we hope we will be able to establish networks, kick-start inclusive dialogues, and shift perspectives to help bridge research, action, and policy that supports the Early Warnings for All initiative, the Sendai Framework Target G, and the planned WHO convention, agreement or other international instrument on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response (WHO CA+). Our aim is to generate better understanding and more effective warnings in the future, for all. 

The conference will bring together research knowledge and skills from within academia, alongside lessons from the many stakeholders we work with, to help explore not just the creation and implementation of warnings, but how they can be effective, inclusive, sustainable, and people-centred. We hope that the combination of workshops, simulations, and campfire sessions (informal telling of stories and experiences) will provide ample space to discuss, share knowledge and experiences to understand how warnings are perceived across the warning chain. We are also working with a number of artists and performers to help create the space to get our ‘hands dirty’ and get to grips with what the real challenges in warnings are. 

The conference aims to focus on three key issues that are critical to ensure effective warnings for all hazards, and human-made threats: i) multi-sectoral, multi-hazard collaboration; ii) turning the last mile into the first mile: integrating bottom-up and top-down approaches; and iii) integrating warnings over space and time. 

3. How has being a REAP Partner helped in your work?  

REAP has elevated the use of academic expertise in work on warnings. Being a REAP Partner has enabled the WRC to share academic research, expertise, and knowledge of methodologies used within warnings and early action to the Partnership and beyond. As well as enabling greater visibility of academic work in the field, membership of REAP has given the WRC opportunities for networking and developing new projects.  

Following the REAP ethos of bringing diverse stakeholders together to learn and mobilise shared ambition, the upcoming WRC Conference is very much a product of REAP and the links and relationships we have built with many of the Partners. Being able to operate in a space that actively tries to bridge research, policy and practice, and using the opportunity to contribute deep academic expertise on varied topics – including designing, implementing, and maintaining effective warnings; understanding what makes warnings successful or failures; working across a wide range of hazards and threats to develop multi hazard warning systems; and integrating people and society into warnings – has truly helped to increase the impact of the work we are doing in the WRC. Therein lies the success of the Partnership – it works for, as well as with, its Partners. UCL WRC is proud to be partners with REAP, alongside the Anticipation Hub, and CUAMM Doctors with Africa, to help communicate our work, and we aim to continue to deliver expert and state of the art research to help make warnings effective, inclusive, sustainable, and actioned. 

4. What do you see as the next 1-2 priorities to tackle so that we can take early warning and early action to scale? 

This is a tough question as so many issues need to addressed. Academia offers the opportunity to cast a critical eye, provide the ‘bigger picture’ questions, and discuss alternative ways of approaching the topic. In the case of warnings this can only be done by understanding how warnings work in practice, policy, and institutionally. Valuable insights can be made by academia to make sure warnings are people-centred and lessons have been identified, learnt, and implemented. Different approaches to public engagement can be integrated to make sure that warnings engage with the vulnerable as part of the ‘first’ mile, so the public are co-producers of knowledge and any warning system, based on the experiences of other complex issues (e.g. genetic editing, nanotechnology, and nuclear energy).  

Yet, to date no-one really knows how to do multi-hazard warnings effectively, transformative lessons from COVID-19 are still to be learnt and integrated, people are talking about the last mile but far less about the first mile process, warnings are still generally spoken of as technocratic tools, and warnings remain dominated by the scientific community.  

Therefore three key priorities are needed to help take early warning and early action to scale:  

  1. Warnings require integration across different vulnerabilities to respond to multiple hazards, sequences, and cascades. 

  1. Warnings require all stakeholders to work across different silos: disciplines, organisations, geographies, social contexts, and hazards and threats. 

  1. Warnings are long-term social processes, that require public engagement to empower people to identify and fulfil their own warning needs for enhancing preparedness, and response behaviours, and actions.  

However, as an academic, I have the privilege to go beyond these and think about broader priorities and therefore my key two stretching priorities are: 

  1. Expand the warning agenda: cut across a wide range of vulnerabilities and contexts, hazards and threats globally to share knowledge of warnings, and facilitate a reframing of warnings to help them be more effective and connected to people. 

  1. Reconceptualise warnings from just the four elements of warnings, to one that has a core cross-cutting element / pillar that creates an enabling environment that facilitates people-centred and multi-hazard early warning systems that are successful. A picture paints 1000 words… 

Core pillar