In summary

We must leverage California’s expertise in science and technology to strengthen its resilience to multiple, simultaneous and interactive disasters.

By Bill Quirk, Special to CalMatters

Assemblymember Bill Quirk, a Democrat from Hayward, represents California’s 20th Assembly District, bill.quirk@asm.ca.gov. He has a doctorate in astrophysics.

This year, California broke a sad record. We had the largest wildfire in modern history, burning more than 1 million acres over seven counties and sending choking smoke across the state. Recently, 90,000 people were evacuated from their homes in Southern California. The untold level of destruction has yet to be fully quantified or understood. One thing we do know is that the wildfires and COVID-19 have underscored the growing complexity of California’s disaster landscape. 

While addressing these issues remains a top priority in Sacramento, according to a new report from the California Council on Science & Technology, our capacity for doing so is limited by a concerning inability to accurately account for the full costs associated with the damage. The council’s report finds that our standard means of calculating wildfire costs does not provide sufficient data, leading to widespread unquantified losses such as health impacts from wildfire smoke or loss of ecosystems. 

The report highlights a need for a coordinated and systematic approach to data gathering and decision making. Our data collection needs to consider the full spectrum of wildfire impacts and future management – from forest management to public health to housing development. Beyond finding inconsistent data collection, the report offers specific and nonpartisan policy suggestions to bridge our information gaps. California benefits when we have quality, unbiased and scientifically backed data from which we can make policy decisions.  

As California’s only scientist in the state Legislature, I cannot stress enough the value of sharing data and science with my fellow Assemblymembers to help us navigate complex issues such as wildfire mitigation and management strategies. The California Council on Science & Technology has been critically important for our lawmakers to better understand many of the issues and possible resolutions to California’s most pressing challenges. 

California is a wellspring of science and technology expertise. Our world-class academic institutions, laboratories and innovators all provide opportunities for us to access critical information that can help inform our decision making. The California Council on Science & Technology has been a trusted mechanism to connect those dots and provide unbiased, non-partisan and trusted data for the state. 

There is a role for science as we develop policy. Now more than ever, science can help us find wise courses of action based on facts. In the case of wildfire, we know that a one-size-fits-all solution does not exist. Our work as a state needs to consider the many intersecting issues at hand – climate change, forest management, public health, housing, land use, wildlife and more – and how they work together.

We can use science, data and research to help bridge our conversations across these fields and across political lines. Californians need their decision-makers to do this. We are fortunate to have the expert resources to lean on as we consider our policies. That includes the PhD Science and Technology Fellows that the California Council on Science & Technology helps place within state policymaker’s offices to provide analysis of the scientific information that comes our way. 

These resources are valuable to me, as I am sure they are to many of my peers in Sacramento. 2021 is going to be here before we know it, and the Legislature will soon be in session. During this session, I expect that there will be robust focus on wildfire and COVID-19. I also know that there will be a high reliance on sound data to help us better understand and address these issues.

We need to take the concerns of our science community seriously. We must leverage the state’s commanding expertise in science and technology to strengthen its resilience to multiple, simultaneous and interactive disasters. This is how we create effective strategies that mitigate wildfire disasters, deliver sound public health policies and guide our decision making for a more resilient future.   

That’s why I am committed to ensuring that California has reliable sources of funding for unbiased science and data collection – including a five-year funding stream for the California Council on Science & Technology. This is one of my priorities for the 2021 legislative session. I am calling on my fellow lawmakers in California to join me in supporting robust science and data resources to aid our collective understanding of the state’s most pressing issues. 

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Gary Reed with any commentary questions: gary@calmatters.org, (916) 234-3081.