CSaP Annual Conference 2012: Risk and uncertainty

22 March 2012


This report was prepared by Sian Loveless, NERC-Funded CSaP Policy Intern (February 2012 - May 2012)

On 8 March 2012 – the very day that the BBC declared that solar storms threatened to “wreak havoc with satellites or power grids” – many of the UK’s top risk experts were attending the CSaP conference on Risk and Uncertainty, organised in partnership with the Willis Research Network and sponsored by the IET and Lloyd’s.

Recent global disasters such as the 2011 Tohuku earthquake and tsunami, and the 2010 Icelandic volcanic ash crisis, have highlighted society’s vulnerability to High Impact Low Probability events; and on a day-to-day basis, the understanding of risk and uncertainty is a constant concern for government and business. This conference brought together academics, policy makers and business representatives to discuss risk, resilience and uncertainty across a wide range of domains, from science and technology to the global financial crisis and natural hazards.

The morning session, chaired by Lord Willis (former Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee), considered the use of the “precautionary principle”. Within EU policy alone the precautionary principle has fourteen different definitions, though with the common premise that when the public or environment may be at risk from an action or policy it may not be necessary to wait for scientific certainty in order to take protective action.

The consensus among the speakers was that use of the precautionary principle brought its own risks. Professor David Salisbury (Director of Immunisation at the Department of Health) recounted cases, such as the MMR vaccine controversy in 1998, in which immunisation programmes have been damaged by over-precaution, leading to greater health risks. Mark Cantley, former adviser to the European Commission Directorate for Biotechnology, Agriculture and Food, described how the precautionary principle led to a ban on cultivation of genetically modified organisms in Europe and a fall in the European skill base. Professor Sir John Beddington (Government Chief Scientific Adviser) later returned to the theme in his keynote speech, discussing the role of over-cautious flight regulations in turning the Icelandic Eyjafjallajökull eruption into the pan-European volcanic ash crisis in 2010.

The audience discussion highlighted the ways in which media coverage, mistaken notions of “balance”, and political pressures can outweigh scientific evidence – as illustrated by the vastly varying policy reactions of different countries to the same fundamental risks, such as nuclear power after the Tohuku earthquake. There was broad consensus around the need for flexible policy frameworks that enable risks to be revisited, recognising the dynamic nature of scientific issues.

The second session, chaired by Sir Richard Mottram (former Permanent Secretary, Intelligence, Security and Resilience in the Cabinet Office), focussed on “resilience”. In some cases the resilience of systems can be tested physically, such as cold reboot testing of the UK power grid described by Cambridge Professor of Communications Systems Jon Crowcroft, whereas many other systems such as the insurance market (discussed by Dr Dougal Goodman of the Foundation for Science and Technology) and food security (Professor Andrew Challinor from the University of Leeds) rely on modelling of risk scenarios. The speakers agreed on the importance of decentralised operations for reducing the chances of a “common failure mode” and so improving resilience, and on the need to avoid systems becoming so complex that the risks inherent in them can no longer be understood. Professor Peter Sammonds (Director of the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction) also emphasised the role of social resilience in greatly limiting the impacts of the Tohuku earthquake.

Sir John Beddington then gave his keynote address on High Impact Low Probability events (the topic of the government’s latest Blackett Review), before being whisked away once more to reassure the nation on the pending solar storm risk. A panel of representatives from policy, academia and media, chaired by Rowan Douglas (MD of Willis Analytics), then convened to develop the discussion on risk communication. There was strong consensus around the need for communication between policy makers and scientists in risk assessment and management, and around the importance of persuasive voices from the media and campaign groups carrying the correct messages about risks, given their influence over policy makers and the public. As David Salisbury pointed out, “the biggest problems in risk management arise when risk perception does not accurately reflect the risks as seen by scientists”; and the critical role of trust in risk management and communication was also emphasised by both Sir John Beddington and Dougal Goodman. There were differing views, however, on the best ways in which to convey these messages (for example face-to-face conversations, or “translation” of research into a summary form digestible for policy makers and journalists) and on whether scientists or specialist science translators are in the best position to do this.

A more detailed report on this conference will be posted shortly on the CSaP website.

(Banner from Eirik Refsdal)