Extreme Risks - challenges for evidence and policy

10 September 2019


Reported by Bekki Parrish NERC-funded Policy Intern (May - July 2019).

At our annual conference on 26 June, the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk led a panel discussion on extreme risks and the challenges that impossible to predict ‘black swan’ events pose for policy makers.

A speaker from the Government Office for Science (GO-Science) explained that the role of GO-Science was to ensure government policies and decisions were informed by the best scientific evidence and strategic long-term thinking. She laid out a series of challenges that government has to face when dealing with uncertainty, extreme risks and black swan events.

Click on the link below to listen to the panel discussion:

For example, the need for systemic thinking is challenged by the different timelines, agendas and priorities of different government departments and agencies. Furthermore, short-term versus long-term priorities must always be juggled. GO-Science helps government agencies tackle some of these challenges and undertake horizon scanning and future forecasting, for example via the Foresight programme and through the placement of Chief Scientific Advisors within each government department. Go-Science also runs SAGE (Science Advisory Group in Emergencies) which provides science advice into the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (COBR) – the UK’s emergency response committee.

A poignant example of this process was the 2018 Salisbury incident. Georgina Collins, Deputy Director in emergencies for the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) described the incident as a low-probability, high-risk event. Defra prepares for such events through worst case scenario planning exercises. Following advice from SAGE, Defra prepared decontamination response and recovery plans. This situation was highly dynamic for a variety of factors. The number of contamination sites grew rapidly to 12. The chemical agent involved, Novichok, was a high toxicity, persistent and novel agent about which little was known. Geopolitical considerations were also of high relevance. As such, usual networks for obtaining decontamination advice (from outside of government) were not appropriate and the military were drafted in to handle decontamination activities.

Dr Dudley Hewlett, Head of Science and Innovation at Defra, reflected on how the government machine was able to mobilise relatively quickly, working with local authorities and relevant mechanisms and experts within government to respond rapidly and effectively following the COBRA meeting.

Dudley also reflected on learnings from the Pollonium 210 attack in London in 2006 as well as other global CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear) events such as the 2011 Fukoshima nuclear disaster, the 1995 Tokyo Sarin gas attacks, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the 2011 anthrax attacks in Washington DC.

In such extreme events, systems-based approaches are needed and the docking points with scientific knowledge and advice must be identified. Dudley also reflected that science is not a panacea but that collaborations with a variety of disciplines and sectors is necessary to prepare and respond to such events.

Photo credit: gnuckx, 2011