Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report


CHAPTER 4: COMMUNICATING UNCERTAINTY AND RISK

  4.1  In common parlance, "scientific" is almost synonymous with "certain". This perception, which is probably picked up at school, is virtually true of much old and well-established scientific knowledge. In many of the areas of current concern, from climate change to cancer, it is however very wide of the mark. As the RCEP put it, "Science is not a matter of certainties but of hypotheses and experiments. It advances by examining alternative explanations for phenomena, and by abandoning superseded views. Such incompleteness is inherent in the nature of science, especially environmental science, which deals with 'the world outside the laboratory'" (RCEP p 442).

  4.2  When science and society cross swords, it is often over the question of risk. Risk, as is widely understood, has at least two dimensions: the chance of something happening, and the seriousness of the consequences if it does. It is often the case with new phenomena or theories that scientists are uncertain about both these things, and also uncertain about the chains of cause and effect supposedly at work. In this situation, any assurances which science may give must necessarily be hedged about with qualifications ("It appears to be safe, on the following assumptions which require further research"). Yet the public, or the media purporting to speak for the public, may demand unqualified assurances ("Is it 100 per cent safe?"), and may even perceive and present the response as being an unqualified assurance when it was not. By this means, the stage is set for confusion, cynicism and even panic.

  4.3  One tempting response to this situation is to insist that nothing be done until all uncertainties have been resolved and all risks eliminated. Sir Aaron Klug was scathing about this approach in his Anniversary Address: "It is a recipe for stagnation...Taking some risk is indeed a necessary condition for progress."

  4.4  The questions of how to quantify and communicate risk and uncertainty are currently the subject of intense study. The issues are of increasing concern in government, as government takes on ever more responsibility for regulating risky activities of all kinds, incurring political and sometimes legal liability when things go wrong. The Cabinet Office (May Q 29) and the Royal Society (Cox Q 143) are both active in this area; the Health and Safety Executive chairs the Interdepartmental Liaison Group on Risk Assessment (ILGRA) whose work on communication is commended by the Consumers' Association (Q 642); in the private sector it is a constant challenge for consumer publications such as Which? (Q 603). But no satisfactory solution has been found; and the failure to do so may have hugely expensive public consequences.

Openness: the May guidelines

  4.5  In March 1997, the then Government's Chief Scientific Adviser issued guidelines on Use of Scientific Advice in Policy Making (May Q 15). The main theme of these is openness: where scientific advice is uncertain or divided, this should be admitted from the start. This represented a considerable change of culture for Whitehall, where advice to Ministers has traditionally been confidential.

  4.6  The Freedom of Information Bill in its current form will change this position, though by how much is a matter of intense debate (e.g. CA/NCC Q 645). The Human Rights Act 1998, which will come into force in October 2000, may also have implications

  4.7  Our witnesses are agreed that admitting to uncertainty does less harm than trying to conceal it (Irwin QQ 67, 84; R Soc p 44, CA/NCC Q 627, MORI p 161). Likewise Sir Aaron said, "The public should be kept informed...This may involve delays and difficulties, but in the long run openness is the best policy"[37]. The Institute of Science in Society and Save British Science argue that, if the Government's position on BSE up to 1996 had reflected more accurately the uncertainty of the underlying science, both the public and the authorities would have been better prepared for the shift in scientific consensus which prompted the notorious change of policy (ISIS p 339, SBS p 399). This conforms with evidence from the Public Consultation on the Biosciences, that what people most expect from regulators is information, honesty and openness.

  4.8  We agree. Suppressing uncertainty is bound to lead to frequent changes of dogmatic position, and to the loss of public trust and respect. We congratulate the Chief Scientific Adviser on drawing up these guidelines, and we are pleased to note that the present Government are putting them into effect across Whitehall.

  4.9  The OST informs us that there is "nothing strictly comparable" to these Guidelines at EU level. The nearest equivalent is a Communication from the Health and Consumer Protection Directorate General entitled "Consumer Health and Food Safety"[38]. This deals with the quality, independence and transparency of scientific advice to the Commission the areas of food, veterinary and phytosanitary control and inspection. As the Royal Society has suggested, the Government should now press for guidelines on scientific advice across the board, along the lines of the OST guidelines, to be adopted at Commission level.

  4.10  As the guidelines say (May Q 16),

  "The difficulties associated with presenting uncertain or conflicting conclusions should not be underestimated".

To answer the question "Yes or no, Minister, is it safe?" fairly without seeming to prevaricate is very difficult. The best answer is likely to be along the lines "No, nowhere in life is anything 100 per cent safe. It is probably safer (or less safe) than crossing the road"; but even this level of nuance may be too much for a determined interviewer.

  4.11  These difficulties are reduced if the public has some concept of scientific methods and understands that "safe" is a relative and subjective term. Our witnesses are agreed that the public's understanding of the nature and processes of science needs to improve (May Q 2, Cox Q 143, BAAS p 49). In Chapter 6 we discuss how science education in schools could help; in Chapter 7 we consider the role of the media.

  4.12  The Chief Scientific Adviser's Guidelines are currently under review. We hope that this report will contribute to that process. For example, revised Guidelines might state the importance, touched on above in Chapter 2, of framing the problem, and the need to see the question on which scientific advice is sought in proper relation to other aspects of the issue.

Communicating risk

  4.13  Many people are well able to make value judgements by weighing advantages against disadvantages, given clear information. This process was at work, for example, as people responded to the New Scientist/MORI survey on animal experimentation noted in Chapter 2 above.

  4.14  In other contexts, however, the outcome of such value judgments sometimes seems perverse to the scientific mind. Despite intense publicity and education millions of people deliberately hazard their health several times a day by smoking; and car use continues to rise despite costs in death, injury and environmental degradation which would be quite unacceptable in other contexts.

  4.15  It is considered in some quarters that public discussion of risk would be much easier if there were one simple and widely understood scale on which any given risk could be placed and compared with others. According to SmithKline Beecham, such a scale is "desperately needed" in the United Kingdom (p 412). This concept, which is sometimes referred to as a "Richter Scale of risk", has been under discussion between the Royal Society, the Royal Statistical Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering (Cox QQ 143, 785).

  4.16  The Consumers' Association and the National Consumer Council put it to us, however, that risk is so multi-faceted, that any simple scale is likely to be misleading (QQ 628, 633). Two of the founders of the US Society of Risk Analysis, whom we met in Washington, shared the view that finding convincing comparisons between different kinds of risk was difficult.

  4.17  Sheila McKechnie, Director of the Consumers' Association, went on to refer to current research into how people receive information about risk, how they process it and how they use it to make judgements, all of which depend on individual personality and culture. In her view, this country lags behind others in applying this analysis to risk communication. There are also "fright factors" which make people more wary of some risks than is warranted by objective calculation of odds: for example, risk is less acceptable if the risk-taker has no choice as to whether to take the risk and no personal means of managing it. (This may lie behind the persistent popularity of smoking and driving, contrasted with the high level of concern over the safety of food products and public transport.)

  4.18  The quest for a "Richter scale of risk" has not proved to be a practical way forward. The definition and measurement of risk involve so many factors, many of them imprecise, that any scale which purported to offer simple comparisons of risks of widely differing kinds could only be misleading. We accept however Miss McKechnie's advice that there is current research on how risk information is received by the public, which would be useful to those making policy for risk communication; we recommend that the Interdepartmental Liaison Group on Risk Assessment should look into this research.

Independence

  4.19  Since in most situations risk and uncertainty cannot be eliminated, they must be assessed and managed by an acceptable process (Irwin Q 83). The traditional process relies on the advice of independent experts. However, as we discussed in Chapter 2, the public is currently in no mood to place uncritical trust in experts.

  4.20  The concept of independence is also problematic. When assessing what science says, regard may be had to where it comes from and who paid for it. The Consumers' Association told us that this has been accepted in the USA for 30 years, and is now generally acknowledged in this country[39] (Q 613; cp May Q 3; R Soc p 43). Evidence from public opinion surveys, showing the importance of the perceived source or paymaster of research, was quoted above in Chapter 2. The Science Editor of the Express put this point of view to us in extreme terms: "There is no such thing as pure science unadulterated by money or greed or personality. It is all coloured by something" (Q 776).

  4.21  Commercial connexions are most problematic. 20 years ago, most university research was funded by the taxpayer through the dual support system[40], and could reasonably be regarded as "independent". However, the policy of successive Governments since then has been to promote links between academic/public-sector research and the private sector, and has rewarded universities that succeeded in securing commercial sponsorship for their work. There are very few universities in the United Kingdom that receive no money from industry. This makes the majority an easy target for those who wish to claim that the results of their work are not independent. The Funding Councils give particular recognition to industry-supported work which results in open publications after normal peer review[41]. It is nevertheless true that, in some fields, these policies have made it hard to find an expert who cannot be said to be in some way connected with the relevant industry (Irwin Q 59; Attenborough Q 370; ISIS p 340; Rice/Owen p 384).

  4.22  The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee considers that this line of argument must be resisted. They have recently said, "We reject any suggestion that scientists' integrity is automatically compromised by association with industry".[42] Likewise the National Consumer Council argues that it should not be assumed automatically that "a scientist is in the pocket of whoever is paying his wages" (Q 614).

  4.23  The Chief Scientific Adviser's guidelines suggest that openness provides a way out. They say,

  "Efforts should be made to avoid or document potential conflicts of interest, so that the impartiality of advice is not called into question".

  4.24  Sir Aaron Klug acknowledges, "Political realities being what they are, it is probably futile to argue that a scientist can interact with a commercial company without becoming an implicit advocate for that company". He suggests another approach: "If we are not to lose the public services of commercially aware expert scientists, we will need to proceed by the route of establishing panels whose expert members, collectively, represent a balance between the main sets of interests at stake"[43].

Conclusion

  4.25  We strongly agree in principle with the sentiments of our colleagues in the House of Commons. Scientists must robustly protect and vindicate their independence. Sponsorships and affiliations must be openly declared, and must not be assumed to colour the quality or outcome of the science, provided that the research output is submitted to peer review and published in the academic literature. It should be noted that pressure groups in the environmental and other fields are often presented as sources of "independent" science; yet their officers and retained scientists depend for their support on the subscriptions of members and sympathisers, and so are as liable to be "mandated" as any industrial scientist.

  4.26  Nonetheless, Sir Aaron is right to point to political realities. It must be admitted that, as we have argued in the preceding chapters, peer review and declarations of interest have not averted the present crisis of trust in science-based public policy. In our view, a radically different approach to the process of policy-making in areas involving science is called for. In the next chapter, we examine the options.


37   Royal Society Anniversary Address 1999. Back

38   COM(97)183, April 1997. Back

39   The expression "mandated science" is sometimes used for research whose outcome is effectively dictated by its source. Back

40   Consisting of the Research Councils and what was then the Universities Funding Council, now the HEFCs. Back

41   "Peer review" is the process whereby work submitted for publication in a learned journal, or for financial support, is examined by the researcher's scientific peers (i.e. equals) to see that it is genuinely interesting and not patently flawed. Back

42   Scientific Advisory System: GM Foods, HC 286, May 1999, para 51. Back

43   Royal Society Anniversary Address 1999. Back


 
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