Science in Emergencies

4 March 2011


There are three phases in an emergency – preparation, reaction and recovery – and the use of scientific advice, argued Andrew Miller MP, Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, needs to be integrated in all three.

Mr Miller was speaking following the launch of his Committee's report on Science in Emergencies at a lecture organised by the Darwin College Students Association and sponsored by CSaP.

The report looked at four case studies: the pandemic H1N1 flu virus, the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, cyber attacks and space weather.

Science is used relatively effectively in emergencies, but the Committee expressed concern about the detachment of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA), Sir John Beddington, from risk assessment. This manifested with the Government asking for advice after the event, but not properly assessing risk ahead of time. For example, volcanic ash was removed from the risk register in 2009.

The Committee recommended that the risk assessment register should be signed off by the GCSA and that the Government should set up a new advisory committee on risk management. Additionally, they argued, not for the first time, that the GCSA and his office, the Government Office for Science (GO-Science), should be moved to the Cabinet Office, at the heart of government.

Andrew next explored the practicalities of providing accurate and understandable scientific advice. He suggested that communication of risk and uncertainty remained a significant problem. A potential solution was for the communicators to work more closely with behavioural scientists, to get a clearer understanding of how people understand risk and uncertainty.

Another concern centred around the issue of security checks for scientists providing scientific advice. Many scientists were reticent to gain security clearance, fearing that this would then prevent them from speaking about certain issues. Where this is not the case, it should be better communicated to scientists and where it is the case, steps should be taken to ensure that academic freedom is maintained.

Finally, he suggested that the SAGE committees are unnecessarily secretive. The Committee recommended that SAGE membership should normally be published and that, unless security issues applied, the minutes of meetings should be published as a matter of course, rather than after Freedom of Information requests.

A lively Q&A session followed under the Chatham House rule, chaired by Bill Nuttall. Topics covered included horizon scanning and academic rigour, the difference between natural hazards and malicious hazards, the use of reasonable worst case scenario and the precautionary principle, what difference it makes when something does appear on the risk register, the role of the media and whether the Treasury would benefit from a risk register of its own.

Banner: Haiti Earthquake 2010 by European Commission

  • 3 March 2011

    Science in emergencies

    Mr Andrew Miller, MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston, and Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, will deliver a lecture on ‘Science in Emergencies’ on 3 March 2011.