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Risk, Uncertainty, and Sustainable Innovation: New perspectives on emerging challenges

By Larry Bell on September 20, 2011 | Log in to view or post comments

We scientists and innovators should just accept the idea that when it comes to new and emerging technologies that at some point along the way we are going to “cock it up.”  The public knows it will happen and we can build a more trusting relationship with the public if we fess up to it in advance. This is one idea expressed today at a conference organized by Andrew Maynard at the University of Michigan.

Participants from industry, government, academia, and non-government sectors gathered today in Ann Arbor today to explore thorny topics related to risk and emerging technologies. Rae Ostman and I are on the last panel tomorrow, which focuses on “Risk, uncertainty, and social engagement – how can we do better.”  This conference has a novel format – no presentations, no powerpoint slides.  Instead panelists sit on the stage in comfy chairs and discuss the topic at hand, responding to each other, to the moderator, and to the audience.

Here are some other ideas that I found interesting and that might have some relevance to our work in the NISE Net.

Innovations today are hard to understand compared to those of the past.  With human-scale technologies the public could see the parts, and tinker with the innovations.  But innovations at the molecular scale are not accessible in that way.  The public can’t take a peak at the inner workings and so has to delegate authority about assessment to the experts with little opportunity for those decisions to be informed by direct experience.  And that can lead to suspicion about whether the experts are judging the benefits and risks of the technologies with the same standards the public would use.

Furthermore there seem to be groups today on both the right and the left who reject the intellectual or scientific perspective and retreat to folk wisdom and philosophies that reject innovation.  In this environment there is worry that it is not possible to have a rational discussion about risks and benefits.

In matters of safety there is some ambiguity as to whether the public just wants to know that “it is safe” or whether it has a more sophisticated sense of acceptable risks in different situations based upon the specific characteristics of the risks and of the benefits.  Some suggested that we shouldn’t identify any technology as “safe” but instead move to the concept of “safe enough” – not an absolute value but a relative one.

To use relative safety or relative risk to make choices about how to proceed, we need ways to quantify risks in ways that allow us to compare them.  But for emerging technologies risk quantification is often based upon assumptions that can significantly impact the numbers.  They often involve estimation of risks that are so low that they cannot be verified by scientific measurement.  Some suggest that we should spend less time trying to quantify and compare risks and simply strive for risk that is as low as reasonable achievable and proceed from there.

Discussants agreed that we are currently in the middle of an exceptional period of innovation and that there is no riskless innovation.  With increased innovation comes increased risk.  As the afternoon of the first day of the conference closes, people are talking about the need to bring stakeholders and the public into planning how to proceed in the face of uncertainty.  Scientific data alone cannot determine how to proceed but public engagement is needed. 

Today’s discussion has come full circle.  Science museums, NISE Net, and other informal educational institutions can help to play a role.  The NISE Net’s focus this year on societal and ethical implications is one step.  ASTC’s coming support for a community of practice around public engagement with science is another.  Exciting and important work lies ahead.