British Library talk (topical) science

Added by Ellen Collins on 16 March 2011 17:22

An opportunity to hear the Government Chief Scientific Advisor on communicating risk and scientific advice in emergencies was always going to be a draw. But I don’t think even the BL Science Team could have anticipated how painfully topical yesterday’s Talk Science event would be. As we waited for Sir John Beddington, understandably delayed, there was a strange tension in the room. Sixty-odd people trying very hard to reconcile their excitement at getting the inside scoop on an unfolding news story with the horrible cost of recent events in Japan. Any over-enthusiasm would have felt rather ghoulish.

Understandably, much of the evening’s discussion did focus on the Fukushima power plant and the wider after-effects of the earthquake and tsunami. We got an interesting insight into how the ad-hoc committee SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group in Emergencies) is formed – it is important to include people from outside government to provide another point of view, said Beddington, as long as they meet his criteria of ‘high IQ and low pomposity’.

Broadening out to the kinds of emergencies that had originally been envisaged as part of the talk – the response to swine flu in 2009 and the volcanic ash cloud in 2010 – raised some more fundamental questions. Beddington pragmatically acknowledged that political decisions will always be motivated by considerations beyond pure science; the important thing is that there is transparency about what those other considerations are.

The real problems seem to emerge once the scientific advice gets outside COBRA and the Cabinet (although Beddington was of course far too discreet to say so explicitly). Confusion between the ‘reasonable worst case scenario’ – produced primarily for planning purposes – and the ‘most likely scenario’ was noted as a problem in the recent review of the Government’s handling of swine flu, and an area for future improvement. Similarly, airlines, who could see their profits swirling away in a cloud of volcanic ash dust last April, blamed the meteorological models for their travails. In fact, the models were extremely good – the problem was with over-zealous regulation, now being revised. But it’s easier to blame the science.

I would’ve liked to hear a bit more about the need for secrecy, or at least controlling the flow of scientific information, during an emergency. It jarred a bit to hear Mark Henderson of the Times, chairing the event, express his frustration with the ‘poor quality’ information coming out of Japan. These days, most of us are signed up to the need for openness, but with a 24-hour media requiring constant updates, of course some of the information is going to be contradictory, incorrect or rapidly outdated. And misinformation only helps to spread panic. Beddington seemed to have some sympathy with this view, saying that he understood why normal channels for information in Japan may be less open than usual, as long as they are fully open to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Beddington closed by saying that the nuclear issues at Fukushima are really the least of Japan’s worries. The enormous human and economic cost of the tsunami, its devastation of important industrial areas and the fuel security and cost implications of the loss of the power station are much more significant than any localised fallout. But the neon glow of the nuclear bogeyman has dominated front pages, perhaps illustrating one of the biggest problems in communicating science and risk in an emergency. As a headline, long term and unpredictable ramifications are always going to sell fewer papers than ‘Nuclear meltdown!’.



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