I am a native of Seattle and lived there until I was nine, whereupon my family moved to Anchorage, Alaska. I graduated from Robert Service High School in Anchorage, then attended the University of Oregon, earning my B.A. (cum laude) in political science. By good luck and excellent mentoring by the late Jim Klonoski at the University of Oregon, I was able to attend Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, where I earned my M.A. in political science, focusing on public policy. I then worked for state government in New Jersey, including a one-year stint in the office of Governor Thomas Kean — a fascinating experience for anyone interested in policymaking. The other four years included two tours of duty at the New Jersey Department of Transportation, where I worked with some of the finest public managers I’ve ever known.
After five years of state employment, I applied to and was accepted to the University of Washington, where I spent five years under the mentorship of Dr. Peter May. My dissertation became my book, After Disaster. My examination fields were public policy, American politics, and public law.
I joined the faculty of the Nelson A. Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany, SUNY, in 1995. From 2001-2005 as director of the Center for Policy Research. I spent 2006 on leave from the university at the National Science Foundation in suburban Washington, DC. I was the program director for the Infrastructure Management and Hazard Response Program.
In 2007 I joined the School of Public and International Affairs at NC State, attracted by the infectious energy and enthusiasm of the people at NC State and in the Research Triangle. In my current role as Associate Dean for Research and Engagement in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, I see this energy and enthusiasm in our college every day.
I am working on three main lines of research. I am a member of an interdisciplinary, multi-institutional research team, the Risk and Social Policy Working Group (riskandsocialpolicy.org), which is undertaking a wide range of projects related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, I am part of a team of researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, University of Alaska at Anchorage, LeMoyne College, and Clemson University, to study how improvements to preparedness and infrastructure might help to respond to maritime emergencies in a warming and busier Arctic. Third, I am part of a large team led by Dr. Stanley Grant at Virginia Tech University studying the governance of a problem known as “freshwater salination syndrome” in a watershed in Northern Virginia. My work on the concept of “focusing events,” for which I am best known, is ongoing.
POLITICS, POLICY PROCESSES AND MANAGEMENT
Birkland, Thomas A. 2016. An Introduction to the Policy Process: Theories, Concepts, and Models of Public Policy Making, 4th ed. (New York: Routledge). prior editions published by M.E. Sharpe.
Birkland, Thomas A., 2013. “Disasters, Focusing Events, and Sociolegal Studies.” in Susan Sterrett, ed. Disaster and Sociolegal Studies. New Orleans: Quid Pro Books.
Birkland, Thomas A. and Sarah DeYoung. 2012. “Focusing Events and Policy Windows,” in Routledge Handbook of Public Policy, Eduardo Araral, Scott Fritzen, Michael Howlett, M Ramesh, Xun Wu, eds. London: Routledge.
Birkland, Thomas A. 2010. “Federal Disaster Policy Learning, Priorities, and Prospects for Resilience.” In Arjen Boin, Louise Comfort, and Chris Demchak, eds., Designing Resilience: Preparing for Extreme Events (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press). invited contribution
Birkland, Thomas A. 2009. “Emergency Management and the Courts in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina.” in Austin Sarat and Javier Lezaun, ed., Catastrophe: Law, Politics, and the Humanitarian Impulse (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press). invited contribution
Birkland, Thomas A. 2009. “Disasters, Lessons Learned, and Fantasy Documents.” Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management 17 (3): 146-156. peer reviewed
Birkland, Thomas A., and Sarah Waterman. 2009. “The Politics and Policy Challenges of Disaster Resilience.” In Resilience engineering perspectives. Volume 2: Preparation and Restoration, ed. C. P. Nemeth, E. Hollnagel and S. Dekker. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate). invited contribution
Birkland, Thomas A., and Regina G. Lawrence. 2009. “Media Framing and Policy Change after Columbine.” American Behavioral Scientist 52 (10):1405-1425. peer reviewed
Birkland, Thomas A. and Sarah Waterman. 2008. “Is Federalism the Reason for Policy Failure in Hurricane Katrina?” Publius. 38(4): 692-714. peer reviewed
Birkland, Thomas A. 2006. Lessons of Disaster: Policy Change after Catastrophic Events. (Washington: Georgetown University Press).
Schaefer, Todd, and Thomas A. Birkland, eds. 2006. Encyclopedia of Media and Politics. (Washington: CQ Press).
Lawrence, Regina G. and Thomas A. Birkland. 2004. “Guns, Hollywood, and Criminal Justice: Defining the School Shootings Problem across Public Arenas.” Social Science Quarterly, 85(5): 1193-1207. peer reviewed
Birkland, Thomas A. 1997. After Disaster: Agenda Setting, Public Policy, and Focusing Events. (Washington: Georgetown University Press).
ENVIRONMENTAL AND DISASTER MANAGEMENT AND POLICY
Warnement, Megan K., and Thomas A. Birkland. 2015. “Organizational and Policy Learning: Post Crisis Assessments.” In Organizing after Crisis: The Challenge of Learning, edited by Nathalie Schiffino, Laurent Taskin, Céline Donis and Julien Raone, pp. 235-256. Brussels: Peter Lang. invited contribution
Birkland, Thomas A. and Megan Warnement. 2015. “Critical Infrastructure in Extreme Events,” in Controversies in Science and Technology, 4th ed., Daniel Lee Kleinman, Karen A. Cloud-Hansen, and Jo Handlesman, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, Chapter 3. invited contribution
Birkland, Thomas A., and Megan K. Warnement. 2014. “Focusing Events in Disasters and Development.” In Disaster and Development, edited by Naim Kapucu and Kuotsai Tom Liou, 39–60. New York: Springer International Publishing. http://link.springer.com/10.1007/978-3-319-04468-2. invited contribution
Birkland, Thomas A., and Sarah E. DeYoung. 2011. “Emergency Response, Doctrinal Confusion, and Federalism in the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 41, no. 3 (May): 471-493. doi:10.1093/publius/pjr011.
Comfort, Louise K., Thomas A. Birkland, Beverly A. Cigler, and Earthea Nance. 2010. Retrospectives and Prospectives on Hurricane Katrina: Five Years and Counting. Public Administration Review, 70(5):669-678.
Suter, Larry, Thomas A. Birkland and Raima Later. 2009. “Disaster Research and Social Network Analysis: Examples of the Scientific Understanding of Human Dynamics at the National Science Foundation.” Population Research and Policy Review 27 (6): 1-10. peer reviewed
Horton, Benjamin, Michael Bird, Thomas Birkland, Susan Cowie, Ong Jin Eong, Andrea Hawkes, Gong Wooi Khoon, Lisa Law, Colin Macgregor, Aileen Tan Shau-Hwai, Teh Tiong Sa, Zulfigar Yasin. 2008. “Environmental and Socio-Economic Dynamics of the Indian Ocean Tsunami in Penang, Malaysia.” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 29(3): 307-324. peer reviewed
Birkland, Thomas A. and Carrie A. Schneider. 2007. “Emergency Management in the Courts: Trends after September 11 and Katrina.” Justice System Journal, 28(1), 20-35. peer reviewed
Birkland, Thomas A., Pannapa Herabat, Richard Little and William Wallace. 2006. “The Impact of the 26 December 2004 Tsunami on Tourism in Thailand.” Earthquake Spectra 22 (S3): S889-S900. (Special issue on the Great Sumatran Earthquakes and Indian Ocean Tsunamis of 26 December 2004 and 28 March 2005.) peer reviewed
Birkland, Thomas A., 2004. “Everything Has Changed—Or Has It? Policy Change in the Months after September 11.” Review of Policy Research 21 (2), 177-198. peer reviewed
Birkland, Thomas A., 2004. “Environmental Successes and Continued Challenges in the Hudson Valley.” Albany Law Environmental Outlook 8(2): 187-211.
National Science Foundation, “Workshop on Resilient Infrastructure for Sustainable Communities: Arlington, Virginia, 2014.” CMMI-1413857. February 1, 2014-January 31, 2015; no-cost extension to January 31, 2016. $96,834.
National Science Foundation, “Enabling the Next Generation of Hazards and Disaster Researchers.” CMMI-0758424, June 1, 2008 to May 31, 2010. Approximately $241,000 (including supplement). No-cost extension to 5/31/2011.
Subcontract to University of New Orleans (Funder: Ford Foundation) on “Implementation of the Stafford Act.” May 2008 to March 2010, approximately $39,000.
Member, project team, Statewide Logistics Study, funded by the State of North Carolina (George List, Civil Engineering, PI). My contribution: $3800.
National Science Foundation, “Physical and Social Infrastructure Impacts and Interdependencies in the December 2004 Tsunami in Southern Thailand.” $76,819, March 2005-February 2006. Awarded March 2005. Supplement to study Hurricane Katrina awarded October 2005 (approximately $11,000). No cost extension to 2008.
National Science Foundation. “Exploring Flood Mitigation Policy: A System Dynamics Approach.” CMS 0408994, approx. $200,000, June 2004-May 2006. Awarded May 2004.
“The Courts and Emergency Management after September 11.” Center for Court Innovation, $5,000, 2003-2004.
Division of Disability Determination (DDD), various projects, approximately $140,000, 2003-2005.
National Science Foundation. “Determinants of State-Level Disaster Policy Change, Improvement, and Learning.” CMS 9732233. $125,112 (estimated). June 1998-June 2000. Awarded June 1998.
New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. “UCP Personal Outcomes Project.” 1998-2005. $240,000.
State Office for the Aging (SOFA). “Evaluation of Elderly Nutrition Programs.” Approximately $75,000. September 1, 1998–April 1, 2000.
Faculty Research Assistance Program (FRAP), University at Albany. “Policy Maker Response to Focusing Events: Influences on Agenda and Policy Change.” April 1996–April 1998, $3,958.
Other Publications, Opinion Pieces and Reports
Birkland, Thomas A. 2009. “Still Too Much Risk in the Beach Plan.” News and Observer, (Raleigh, NC), September 22. http://www.newsobserver.com/opinion/columnists_blogs/story/60531.html.
Birkland, Thomas A. 2009. “Economics Nobel Sends a Message.” Charlotte Observer, October 14. http://www.charlotteobserver.com/viewpoint/story/999836.html.
Birkland, Thomas A. 2009. “Advancing FEMA in the Post-9/11 World.” Invited Comment. Natural Hazards Observer 34(2): 18-20. invited contribution
Birkland, Thomas A. 2009. “FEMA Again a Victim of Politics.” Wilmington (NC) Star-News, May 8. http://www.starnewsonline.com/article/20090508/ARTICLES/905084006?Title=Thomas-Birkland-FEMA-again-a-victim-of-politics.
Birkland, Thomas A. 2003. “Jokes Aside, The Case for Being Prepared.” Times Union (Albany, NY), February 20, A13.
Selected Papers and Presentations
Roundtable participant, “Talking about ‘Big Events’ in Environmental History,” American Society for Environmental History, Seattle, WA, March 2016.
Co-organizer, “Ambiguity and Crisis,” invited symposium co-sponsored by the Journal Policy & Politics and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, North Carolina State University, February 2016.
“Lesson Drawing from Natural Hazards and Disasters,” invited presentation, Coastal Resilience Center and Department of City and Regional Planning, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, January 2016.
Visiting Scholar, Valente Center for Arts and Sciences, Bentley University, Waltham, Mass., October 5-8, 2015.
- “Do People Ever Learn from Disasters? A Revision of the Idea of Event-Driven Policy Change,” public lecture, October 5, 2015
- “The State of the Art in Disaster Studies,” faculty seminar, October 7, 2015
“Bringing Biodiversity into Environmental Policy, or Bringing the Environment to Policy,” invited discussion, 20th Anniversary Workshop for the Biodiversity and Conservation M.S. Program, University at Albany, SUNY, Rensselaerville, NY, May 2015.
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Disasters,” invited presentation, Wayne State University, Department of Political Science, Detroit, MI, February 2015.
Warnement, Megan K., Susan E. Camilleri, and Thomas A. Birkland, “Idea Emergence within the Policy Process: Examining the Earthquake Policy Domain,” American Political Science Association, Washington, DC, August 2014.
“Converting Disaster Research into Effective Public Policy,” invited plenary presenter, Disaster Research Center 50th Anniversary Workshop, University of Delaware, Newark, DE, May 2014.
“Idea Emergence, Agenda Change, and Learning,” with Susan Camilleri and Megan K. Warnement, Western Political Science Association, Seattle, April 2014.
“Disasters, Learning and Policy Change: Research Opportunities and Challenges,” invited presentation, Department of Political Science, Clemson University, Clemson, SC, March 2014.
“The College of Arts and Sciences Works with the VP for Research,” panelist, Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences Annual Meeting, Jacksonville, FL, November 2013.
“Policymaking for Resilience: Trade-offs between outcomes and politics of disaster risk reduction,” invited inaugural lecture at the King’s Centre for Integrated Research on Risk and Resilience, King’s College London, October 2013.
Defining, Explaining, and Testing the Role of Focusing Events in Agenda Change: 30 Years of Focusing Event Theory, with Megan K. Warnement, American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, Chicago, Illinois, August 2013 (revised version of the ECPR paper, below).
“Risk and Crisis Management in the Policy Process: Permanent or Evanescent Concerns?” with Megan K. Warnement, First International Conference on Public Policy, Grenoble, France, June 2013.
“Focusing Events in Disasters and Development,” with Megan K. Warnement (presenting author), American Society for Public Administration, New Orleans, Louisiana, March 2013.
“Multiple Streams, Focusing Events and the Policy Process: Testing and Refining the Multiple Streams Approach,” with Megan K. Warnement, ECPR 41St Joint Sessions of Workshops, Workshop on “Decision-Making under Ambiguity and Time Constraints: Assessing the Multiple Streams Framework,” Johannes Gutenberg Universität, Mainz, Germany, March 2013
“Will we ever learn from disasters? Disturbing trends and hopeful signs,” invited presentation, Center for Natural Hazards Research, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC, February 2011. Also presented at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in March 2011, and again to a visiting Chinese delegation at UNCC, December 2011.
“Disasters as Focusing Events,” Workshop on Sociolegal Studies of Disaster, Onati International Institute for the Sociology of Law, Onati, Spain, July 2011 (workshop co-organizer).
Panelist, roundtable on “Theorizing Disaster Recovery,” Natural Hazards Research and Application Workshop, Broomfield, Colorado, July 2011.
“Plus ça change: Learning, Forgetting, and the History of U.S. Disaster Policy,” 2010 Policy History Conference, Columbus, OH, June 2010.
“Reconciling Theories of Organizational and Policy Learning,” with Branda Nowell, Kristin O’Donovan, and Deena Bayoumi, Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, IL, April 2010.
“Disaster Recovery and the Stafford Act: Problems of Policy Design,” topic of roundtable discussion on Balancing Support and Accountability in Disaster Recovery: Lessons from Katrina, American Society for Public Administration, San Jose, CA, April 2010.
Invited Member, Research Work Group, “Resilient American Communities: Progress in Practice and Policy,” Sponsored by University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Center for Biosecurity, Washington, D.C. December 2009.
Invited workshop participant, Forward Look Project: Security: Advancing a Framework for Enquiries (SAFE). Sponsored by NATO and the European Science Foundation. Paris, France, November 2008.
“Space for the River—Space for People? Social and Policy Connections between Rivers and People.” and “Shocks as Catalysts for Institutional Change: Focusing Events, Agenda Change, and Learning.” (Both invited), Freude am Fluss final conference, Radboud University, Nijmegen, Netherlands, October 2008.
“Learning from Disasters: An Elusive Goal?” and “Actors and Institutions in Risk Reduction and Hazards and Disaster Management.” Keynote presentation and invited lecture, program for the Certificate of Advanced Studies in Disaster Risk Reduction: Vulnerabilities and Capacities in the Context of Climate Change, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, September 2008.
“Cities, Disasters, and Homeland Security.” American Political Science Association, Boston, Mass. August 2008.
Invited keynote speaker, “The Future of Hazards and Disasters Research in the Homeland Security Era: Threats and Opportunities.” Hazards and Disasters Research Meeting, Natural Hazards Research and Application Workshop, Broomfield, Colorado, July 2008.
Invited panelist, roundtable discussion on “The 2008 Presidential Candidates and the Future of Emergency Management.” Natural Hazards Research and Application Workshop, Broomfield, Colorado, July 2008.
“Guns, Hollywood and Criminal Justice: Defining the School Shootings Problem across Public Arenas.” Invited presentation to the High Seminar in the Institute for Information Technology and Media (ITM), Mid-Sweden University, Sundsvall, Sweden, May 2008.
“Are Lessons Learned Documents Fantasy Documents?” Invited presentation, Conference and Workshop on Learning from Crises and Major Accidents, Sponsored by CRISMART (part of the Swedish National Defense College), the Swedish Rescue Agency, and the Swedish Emergency Management Agency, Stockholm, May 2008.
“The Politics of Land Use Planning in Hazard Mitigation: Barriers to Learning.” Invited presentation, National Earthquake Conference, Seattle, April 2008.
“The Future of Crises and Disasters in the Homeland Security Era.” invited presentation, Stephenson Disaster Management Institute Inaugural Conference, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, April 2008.
“Hurricane Katrina, Popular and Elite (mis)Understandings of Intergovernmental Disaster Policy” (invited), Southern Political Science Association, New Orleans, LA, January 2008.
Ph.D. Political Science University of Washington 1995
M.A. Political Science Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey 1985
B.A. Political Science University of Oregon 1984
Area(s) of Expertise
My research interests have centered on the politics of natural hazards and industrial accidents. I approach my work from two angles — as a subject matter expert in this field, and as a contributor to public policy theory. In particular, my main interests are What causes some events to get on the agenda, while others do not? and Do we learn anything from sudden "focusing events" to prevent disastrous events from recurring or from being as damaging as their precursors?