Paolo Bocchini

Paolo Bocchini, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of Lehigh’s Center for Catastrophe Modeling and Resilience.

Lehigh’s Center for Catastrophe Modeling and Resilience Receives NSF Planning Grant to Pursue Industry-University Cooperative Research Center

Grant will strengthen Lehigh’s Center for Catastrophe Modeling and Resilience as a nationally recognized research center.

Story by

Christina Tatu

Photography by

Marcus Smith

The National Science Foundation (NSF) selected Lehigh’s Center for Catastrophe Modeling and Resilience to lead the planning phase of an “Industry-University Cooperative Research Center,” bringing together industry innovators, world-class academic teams and government agencies to make advances in the study of disasters and their consequences.

The grant is a “step toward something that can be a game-changer,” said Paolo Bocchini, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of Lehigh’s Center for Catastrophe Modeling and Resilience.

The first university research center announced in February as part of Lehigh’s strategic plan, the Center for Catastrophe Modeling and Resilience is positioned to be a national and international leader in studying potentially catastrophic events and assessing their associated risk. The grant advances its mission by supporting the vision of a single, interinstitutional center that gives stakeholders access to 20 scholars with a rich portfolio of experience.

As part of their application, members of the center interviewed more than 100 stakeholders about the center’s work and collected nearly 30 letters of interest from companies in all segments of catastrophe modeling, as well as from other institutions in the climate, risk, resilience and engineering sectors.

Catastrophe Modeling, or CatModeling, studies the effects of potentially catastrophic events, such as natural disasters, pandemics, financial crises and political unrest and the associated risks that include financial losses, damage to buildings and other infrastructure. But the field is not treated as a traditional discipline explored in academia.

While the private sector has moved forward research in CatModeling, it has challenges in addressing problems that are more appropriate for an interdisciplinary academic environment, Bocchini says. The Center for Catastrophe Modeling and Resilience envisions a thriving, multi-site Industry-University Cooperative Research Center (IUCRC) within the University Research Center that expands the role of academia in CatModeling and interacts with major stakeholders to address the most fundamental problems in the field.

Problems that could be better addressed in an academic environment are those related to the influence of climate change on catmodels, insurance equity, rapid response and recovery after disasters, as well as climate, environmental and social justice applied to disaster resilience, Lehigh said in its application.

Resilience refers to a community’s ability to recover after a disaster. Problems of ethics and equity are intertwined with resilience, the application says. Scenarios such as relocation of populations in areas that will be submerged or isolated by sea level rise, to power shut offs that can prevent wildfires, but also hurt business, were examples of equity and ethical issues that were provided.

The role insurance companies play in resiliency is critical, Bocchini said.

“Insurance companies are really fueling the recovery efforts,” he said. “Making sure that they are still in the black after these events, and they can provide resources, is important. In the past, before catastrophe modeling became a science, we had too many examples where insurance companies went bankrupt.”

Center researchers have decided to integrate their traditional studies on community resilience with a renewed focus on the private sector, specifically the insurance industry, Bocchini said.

The Center for Catastrophe Modeling and Resilience at Lehigh started in 2021, though Lehigh had teams of researchers studying disaster resilience for years before that, developing relationships with collaborators in industry and academia, as well as securing funding for a variety of projects. The broader catastrophe modeling coordination network, for which Lehigh’s center serves as hub, includes founding members from Rice University in Houston, Stanford University in Palo Alto and Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. It has expanded to include additional members from Washington State, Missouri University of Science and Technology and Columbia University in New York.

“The IUCRC is very appropriate for our desire to create a research center that looks at the role of the private sector,” Bocchini said. “Collaborations with the industry are always valuable for research, but we took a field overstudied from the public sector point of view and integrated a private sector perspective.”

Lehigh and Rice are taking the lead on the IUCRC. At Rice University, Jamie E. Padgett, the Stanley C. Moore Professor in Engineering and Chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is the site lead.

Lehigh brings expertise in infrastructure modeling, applied data science, scenario selection, community-level aspects of disasters and probabilistic modeling, and there are experts in atmospheric sciences, says the application for the grant. Rice has the core team in atmospheric sciences and climate induced hazard modeling, as well as experts in vulnerability, infrastructure network modeling, statistics and computational finance.

“Our colleagues from the other institutions enrich our team in probabilistic modeling, geographic information systems, public policy and machine learning. All team members bring to the table collaboration with industry and government in catastrophe modeling and resilience,” the application says.

The group was inspired to apply for the IUCRC grant after a workshop in New York City in March 2023 with 50 people from academia, industry and government.

“When we were talking about research, it was very clear that for decades the private sector built its own research and development in a way that was too disconnected from what we were doing in academia and created a loss of potential synergies and duplication of work,” Bocchini said.

For example, insurance companies are concerned by the perception that the long-term effects of climate change haven't been studied enough because most insurance policies are only for one year at a time, and with few exceptions, insurance companies would not have a reason to look for changes in climate that happen over centuries.

Studying how climate change interacts with CatModeling requires a deeper understanding of how non-stationary climate trends affect extreme weather events, a change in perspective in the analysis time horizon and in the execution style, says the application. It’s a massive endeavor that can hardly be completed by industry alone.

The day after the workshop, Bocchini said members of the center began their application for the grant. As part of their proposal, members had to indicate several projects they intend to work on. Each year, the group will meet with the Industry Advisory Board to pitch potential projects.

Some of the initial proposals include: repetitive loss, climate change and effects on vulnerable populations; recovery-based insurance products to reduce business interruption and increase social equity, and a study of the vulnerability and resilience of networked systems.

Once it becomes an IUCRC, partner companies and institutions are expected to contribute to the IUCRC by appointing a representative to serve on the advisory board and participate in annual board meetings to prioritize projects and provide strategic advice for the coming year, and provide an annual financial contribution.

Because of these contributions, the IUCRC grant could raise up to $10 million over 10 years for the center.

Partners will receive benefits including access to students for recruitment and internships, the chance to serve as an industry advisor for center projects and free tuition credits for the catastrophe modeling and resilience degree programs at Lehigh.

Members of the Lehigh team who assisted with the grant include: David Casagrande, anthropology professor; Daniel Conus, associate professor and associate chair of the Department of Mathematics; Brian Davison, professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering; Benjamin Felzer, associate professor of Earth and environmental sciences; Thomas McAndrew, assistant professor with the College of Health; Maryam Rahnemoonfar, an associate professor with the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Sushrevo Misra, a research scientist with the Center for Catastrophe Modeling and Resilience; Chao Sheng, a postdoctoral research fellow with the center, and Ethan Yang, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Read more stories on the Lehigh News Center.

Story by

Christina Tatu

Photography by

Marcus Smith

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