Innovation, risk, uncertainty and precaution

Sir Mark Walport, the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser issued his first annual report this past week, entitled Innovation: Managing Risk, Not Avoiding It.  In this short report, he makes a number of quite useful points regarding risk, hazard, exposure and vulnerability which can often get muddled up, especially in popular discourse including by the media and politicians.  Walport also makes some completely uncontroversial points — indeed all of the bolded sections are largely innocuous.  In my view, the most important and interesting section from a policy perspective (picked up by Bjorn Lomborg amongst others) is when Walport takes on what is perceived a European disposition towards excessive precaution:

[O]ne of the consequences of having a European Union of 28 nations is that almost every technology evokes immediate and strong reactions in one or more nations. We need to be more aware of these differences, so that we can have healthier and clearer debates that make better policy at all levels. For example, there are two fundamental confusions that bedevil debate on several important regulatory topics, particularly within Europe. The first is the way in which the notions of hazard and risk are differently embedded in national modes of policymaking. This is why it is so important that we share a common understanding of the distinctions between hazard, risk, and vulnerability.

The second is a drift of interpretation of the precautionary principle from what was, in effect, a holding position pending further evidence, to what is now effectively a stop sign. To be meaningful, the precautionary principle requires a rational response to uncertainty (as distinct from risk.

His argument has been taken up in the media in particular with regard to the case of GMOs.  The report is clearly written and well worth looking over the short 10 page report.  What is perhaps most useful though is the much longer background report with chapters from some of the leading thinkers on risk and uncertainty in the UK (though not necessarily innovation!) including David Spiegelhalter here at Cambridge, Tim O’Riordan, Nick Pidgeon, Joyce Tait, Halpern and Service of the Behavioural Insights Team and so on.  There are also some relevant short case studies ranging from synthetic biology to fracking to flooding.   There is some unevenness in terms of both the chapters and the case studies, but many are truly excellent, and overall there are some important lessons and challenges that can be found in this effort.

So this week’s objective is straightforward:

  1. read the short annual Report by the Government Chief Scientific Adviser
  2. read at least one of the chapters in the longer report
  3. read at least one of the case studies
  4. provide some thoughtful, incisive comments on (1), (2) and/or (3)

It is a bit late, since it would have been more helpful this past week when you were trying to write short, sharp letters, but I would reiterate the importance of being succinct and would encourage everyone to stay under 140 words for their contribution.