Welcome pointer for the politics of danger

Understanding Risk
November 15, 1996

United States government agencies have long struggled with how to best improve decision-making concerning a variety of risks affecting both human health and the environment, often in the face of public hostility. One of the most important questions connected to improved decision-making is how to help the public cope with and understand the uncertainties surrounding these risks.

The USgovernment's problem with conveying risk messages to the public was exacerbated in the early 1980s by its low credibility rating, which stemmed from several incompetent appointments by the Reagan administration in the area of environment and health. When William D. Ruckelshaus was chosen to take over as Environmental Protection Agency administrator, he asked the National Research Council to put together a document to clarify the muddle between risk assessment and risk management. This document was completed by the National Research Council in 1983 under the title, Risk Assessment in the Federal Government: Managing the Process, where the committee called for a clear distinction to be made between the science (risk assessment) and the policy-making (risk management). The US government in general and Ruckelshaus in particular, hoped that this clarification would improve the public's opinion about government, as the scientists would only be seen as advising policy-makers about what types of decisions should be made rather than making the decisions themselves.

This publication, referred to as the Red Book in risk management circles, has had a profound impact on risk management in the US, and as late as 1994 in a special issue of Risk Analysis, authors were lauding the positive sides of this separation. However, the problems of improving decision-making with regards to risk and uncertainty have not gone away. Rather, they have increased. Recent reports show that it is more difficult than ever to site noxious facilities, and the government is no more trusted than previously. In light of these worrying findings, the publication of the National Research Council's new report, Understanding Risks, is to be welcomed. It takes a significant departure from the Red Book and argues for greater public and scientific participation in the risk assessment process. No longer is it a linear decision-making process, where there is a problem that scientists assess for environment and health impacts, which decision-makers then act on. Rather it is much more of a consultative process, where the public and the scientists are brought in before the scientists assess the problem - in other words, the scientist and the public help define the problem, and then add input through the entire assessment and management exercise until a policy outcome is reached. Thus, the public and scientists can shed light on issues that would otherwise not have been addressed in a straightforward, linear exercise.

The book starts with a discussion of risk characterisation, where the authors immediately distance themselves from the conventional definition that risk characterisation is just a translation or a summary coming at the end of the completed risk assessment, but rather it "involves complex, value-laden judgements and a need for effective dialogue between technical experts and interested and affected citizens who may lack technical expertise, yet have essential information and often hold strong views and substantial power in our democratic society". In other words the new risk characterisation is to help enhance practical choice leading to a better risk assessment. The remainder of the chapters in the book do two things: they back up the new definition of risk characterisation using numerous examples, and outline some of the practical implications of such an approach for the US government.

The second to fifth chapters discuss judgement, deliberation, and analysis in the risk assessment process. The authors note that all three topics are important for the development of an effective risk characterisation. Judgement is needed to help avoid disputes that have arisen in past risk disputes. Among the issues that the authors argue for are fairness, the importance of future generations and individual rights. Deliberation is part of public participation, in which individuals come together and deliberate over different risk problems; deliberation in turn leads to the formulating of understanding that will lead to better decision making. Analysis, which the authors define as "ways of building understanding by systematically applying specific theories and methods that have been developed within communities of expertise", is an essential component for the understanding of risk as it simplifies multidimensional risks and it is inherently important for decision makers since analysis is made up of replicable and standardised procedures.

The last two chapters focus on implementing the new risk assessment approach and the principles for risk characterisation. The authors argue that it can lead to significant efficiency gains compared to the old approach as in many cases it prevents focusing on the wrong issue (eg policy-makers not understanding the real issues behind the Nevadan public not wanting a high radioactive waste site in Nevada) thereby leading to less disputes and better risk decisions. In so doing, the new risk characterisation school should become the new risk paradigm.

Perhaps the most interesting parts of the book are the sections where the theoretical insights are combined with a number of useful case studies. The authors raise the issue of incomplete risk characterisation as one of the main reasons why the department of energy has problems of siting a high-level radioactive waste site in Yucca Mountain, eg the opponents are concerned with a different set of issues from those of the government. With a proper, thought-out risk characterisation, as advocated by the authors, such a problem could have been avoided at the outset. They argue that judgement is important as risk characterisations at times assume unrealistic assumptions, such as companies' readiness to cope with low-probability, high-consequence risks. Here the authors discuss the problems of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster. For many years the operators of the terminal, Alyeska, kept a full response team ready at all times and escorted each oil tanker out of the Valdez harbour. However, after several incident-free years, the company cancelled their emergency response readiness team, and stopped using the tugs as they believed nothing could happen. However, using the "new" risk characterisation definition such a problem could have been avoided as actual information (eg from the public or the scientists) would have been used rather than simple assumptions of organisational behaviour. The book is a surprisingly easy read, and deserves serious attention and discussion in Europe, not at least in the UK.

Ragnar Lofstedt is lecturer in social geography, University of Surrey.

Understanding Risk: Informing Decisions in a Democratic Society

Editor - Paul C. Stern and Harvey Fineberg
ISBN - 0 309 05396 X
Publisher - National Academy Press
Price - $39.95
Pages - 249

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