Why the public understanding of risk matters

The Ri's Gail Cardew on why the work of the Lloyds Register Foundation Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk links with the Ri’s objective to encourage people to think more deeply about the place of science in their lives.

  • The Royal Institution Building
    Credit: Tim Mitchell

The Lloyds Register Foundation has today launched a new Foresight Review on the public’s understanding of risk.  The research and applications outlined in the report will be further developed by a new centre set up in Singapore to study the public understanding of risk. The report has been produced in collaboration with an advisory panel of 20 international and cross-sectoral experts, of which Professor Gail Cardew, Director of Science and Education at the Royal Institution, was a member.

Here, Gail sets out why the review is so important, and why the work of the Lloyds Register Foundation Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk links with the Ri’s objective to encourage people to think more deeply about the place of science in their lives.

The way in which we as individuals assess risk has a potentially huge impact at a societal level. From cyber-crime to national health costs, it is micro decisions affecting macro level issues.  What’s important is that we use our increasing understanding of the way in which individuals assess risk, to enable those same individuals, along with policy makers and others in positions of power and influence, to realise the potential benefits at a national and world level.

As the Foresight Review launched by the Lloyds Register Foundation (LRF) today notes, we all assess risk on a daily basis, simply, for example, when deciding whether or not to cross the road or to have a second glass of wine.

An obvious analogy is a smoker.  The science that smoking is bad is well established and an individual decision, after careful consideration, to stop smoking has an obvious potential benefit – a reduced likelihood of premature death – to that individual and his or her friends and family.

However an individual choice often makes little difference to society as a whole. But when that individual decision is multiplied by a larger proportion of the UK’s seven million smokers, for example, it begins to have clear benefits at a societal level, not least in the cost to the NHS of providing treatment of the many smoking-related ailments that manifest in later life.

So far, so obvious. But an interesting point discussed by the Advisory Panel and outlined in the LRF report is that we overestimate the risks of events with low true frequency and underestimate those with high true frequency. To put it another way, our smoker has a greater fear, perhaps understandably, of sudden death from an act of terrorism than he or she has of a death from a smoking-related disease in several decades time. 

It is here that the research to be undertaken by LRF can be of such value to policymakers. If we can more clearly identify, and better understand the reasons for, the disparity between perceived and actual risk among the public, then we have a strong evidence base for national and international decision making. Policymakers can better evaluate how to address societal risks and allay, where sensible to do so, the public’s fears and concerns. They can better understand when and where to intervene, often at significant financial expense, to tackle risky behaviour at a macro level.

Crucial to this understanding is social media and analytics. With its widespread use we now have the capacity to actively monitor risks that affect people in real time, which can help us understand, for example, how the public’s perception of risks begin, develop and/or fade away. This is data that previous generations of researchers could only dream about and it is incumbent on us to put it to good use.

But lest we forget, there is a role here too, for the public; for each and every one of us as individuals. And it is here that the LRF’s aims align strongly with our own objectives here at the Royal Institution.

When our understanding of risk perceptions is established, it must be communicated to the public we are studying. Science is at its best when it is critically examined by the woman or man in the street, not just by the small coterie of the researcher and their expert peers.  With the advent of 24/7 media we have a great opportunity to engage the public, but we need to be careful to distinguish fact from opinion, or even ‘alternate facts’. 

So whatever is communicated, must be backed up by scientific evidence and it must be made engaging and relevant to everyone. Only then can we have informed and constructive debate – not just concerning risk, but all major issues in which science plays a part (and that is pretty much all major issues) – and only then can we expect individuals to critically examine the place of science in their lives.

So we must understand the public perception of risk, which is why the LRF Review is so welcome and we must make sure policymakers have the data necessary to make decisions on behalf of us all. And through informed communication and debate, we must encourage the public to take an active participation in the issues affecting our world.

Professor Gail Cardew is Director of Science and Education at the Royal Institution

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