May 21, 2013
The Risk-Monger’s Inbox overflows with invitations to next month’s Risk Summit in Dublin. He has already told them he is not interested. It is not because of the business model of conferences today (fees for this event are more reasonable than most) or that it takes place during exam time in Belgium. The main reason he is giving this event a miss is that much risk research today has become tired, predictable and ineffective.
A quick look at the Risk Summit agenda highlights academic work that mostly took place almost 15 years ago, when many of us were busy trying to apply emerging risk theories to policy-making and media. The conference agenda includes demands for more evidence in the decision-making process, better regulation with a stronger role of science, the distinction of risk and hazard and questions on the effectiveness of the precautionary principle. It is not that these academics and enlightened Philosopher Kings were not right 15 years ago; it is just that nobody was listening (and less so today). The world has moved on, and they have not.
In the last 15 years, activist NGOs (including the European Environment Agency) have redefined science and evidence-based policy-making, social media tools have made it much easier to abuse the concept of factual data (what I call “commonality”) and more activists have found their way into influential positions making lobbying the issue (rather than lobbying being a part of issue management). As our story-telling techniques today have become so rich and our decision-influence matrix so complex over the last decade, I am really quite surprised that the academic community is still looking backwards. Why have they neglected to pay attention to these new inputs? Some possible factors:
Financial security: Companies are still funding these risk academics for their same-old, same-old and their friends are taking high positions in government offices where grants are made available for them to rehash old ideas. The problem with such research funding models is that there is no incentive to take the money and then conclude that their theories are tired and ineffective. And why do companies continue to fund such risk nostalgia? There is little choice – business needs to continue to protect the covenants of rationality and evidence in the hope that the policy structures might someday be reformed. Hopeless despair.
Academic castration: Sadly today, as more and more academics have to self-fund their research, their SME activities leave less time for thinking and even less for academic matters. It is a lot easier to dust off last year’s course on risk management (a reincarnation of a course delivered ten years ago) and find some grad student to mark papers than to sit in a room with the noise turned low and concentrate on how the landscape has changed. It strikes many as ironic that with such an incredible access to knowledge today, we read so little and do very little independent thinking (140 characters aside).
No policy-maker transition structure: When a new civil servant takes up a position or a new MEP is elected, there is likely no dossier delivered to him or her saying: “What you need to know and what we have done so far”. Each new policy-maker / risk manager comes into the rotation with a blank slate, an empty desk and an obedient assistant. So ideas that may be quite old and stale are seen by them as something fresh and flush. They are ready and willing to listen while their predecessors have moved on and are no longer looking at conference agenda or meeting schedules of their past briefs. In the past 15 years, there have been three or four such rotations, leaving much opportunity for the consumption of topics well past their sell-by-date.
The Risk-Monger has always considered himself as an equal opportunity insult artist, and many of his (former?) friends in the risk research world may not appreciate the honesty of the opinions expressed in this blog. They could retort: Well smart-ass, what have you done in the last 15 years to revolutionalise risk research? Fair enough. A few years back, I concluded in this blog that facts don’t matter and that we needed to consider new models for how to operate in an influence-based society. I feel lonely at times, arguing for ALARA as a risk management tool in place of the precautionary principle (which is actually uncertainty management and not risk management – a distinction apparently overlooked in the Risk Summit agenda). I also feel lonely standing up to NGO front groups like CEO and ALTER-EU – trying to show how they are polluting the understanding of dialogue and evidence-based policy-making. Commonality is the term I have recently been articulating for the communication tools used by activists to manufacture perception and neuter the effectiveness of research and evidence in policy debates. I have been active in developing new science communications techniques, stakeholder dialogue tools and the risks and challenges emerging from research ethics debates. There are a lot of fresh, interesting subjects out there and a pressing need to do something. I have been busy.
Like everyone, time is limited and I have chosen to use this blog to share my ideas rather than publish papers to please my dean. I don’t spend my time chasing funding mechanisms, corporate sponsors or grants – I would much rather spend my time observing, developing and thinking.David Zaruk