Risk business set to boom

May 31, 1996

Thinking on risk has come some way since a paper, published by a British government organisation in the 1970s, attempted to show the risks of renewable energy by calculating, for example, how many people might injure themselves falling off ladders while fixing solar panels to the roof. This paper convinced nobody but the nuclear industry of the perils of wind and sun: and any of the risk researchers now in the field, had they been around then, would have told its authors so.

Risk studies have been slow to develop, but now, as our supplement this week shows, are gaining pace. Engineers, social scientists and others are bringing a range of approaches to the subject. The costs of natural disasters and wrong decisions in an increasingly litigious world are sharpening demand for new insights. The objective of simply persuading the public to accept decisions other people have taken has been abandoned.

Ulrich Beck, professor of sociology at the University of Munich, overstates his case when he says that risk has overtaken class as a key determinant in modern society. In many countries, risk goes with poverty. Poor people smoke more, and are more likely to live next to the toxic waste tip or the hazardous landslip: and how long would Sellafield have lasted on the coast of Sussex rather than of Cumbria?

Nonetheless, risk as an issue, like climate change, which crosses old political, geographical and social lines and makes new alliances. Risk research, emerging through the cracks between traditional disciplines, holds out the promise of new ideas and opportunities.

The big challenge is still where the subject began - the risks posed by large projects like power stations, chemical plants or roads. It is no longer acceptable to claim that something is safe enough because a satisfactorily tiny figure can be arrived at for the possibility of catastrophic failure. Even a society where nuclear power and motorways are going slowly out of fashion will need some big projects. It will still need ways for establishing which ones are necessary, for persuading people to accept the risk they pose and for compensating those most directly affected. This is mainly a task for sociology and economics, but it also involves engineering.

More challenging is the handling of low-level exposure to chronic risks including the voluntary (drink, obesity, cigarettes or even, it seems, jelly) and the unbidden (asbestos, radon, BSE). Does society have a duty to minimise risks, even the voluntary ones? Warnings on cigarette packets and anti-drink driving campaigns suggest that even Conservative politicians think that it does. Sometimes risk minimisation can be justified in terms of reducing society's medical costs, but is there more to it than that? More systematic thinking is needed about the risks people face in society, which can and should be reduced and how this is most effectively done. Smoking, at least in the developed world, may already be on the way out as a mass phenomenon, but drinking to excess certainly is not. Some hazards that may seem to be self-inflicted, such as road accidents, are also tied into bad public transport or unreasonable working patterns.

The billions of dollars and millions of lives at stake mean that risk studies will have wide appeal. Anything that means putting business people, social scientists, scientists, engineers, lawyers and actuaries together is likely to be contentious - and to throw up interesting possibilities. It is all the more exciting when the issues are of vital public concern, the media opportunistic and public opinion volatile. Risk will surely, for example, be one of the more fruitful areas for the Labour party's new academic/political network, Nexus, to explore. If there were ever a subject in which a small research grant and bit of careful groundwork might prevent a billion-dollar error, this is it.

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