Review of the British Library’s TalkScience event: Communicating Risk And Scientific Advice During Emergencies

On Tuesday the 15th March, Anna perman and I found ourselves in a bustling room in the British Library, drinking wine and grazing on nibbles, waiting for the speakers for the latest TalkScience event to arrive. The atmosphere in the room was not quite nervous, but there was a sense of impatience to stop chatting and start discussing a subject which was a little more topical than we could have anticipated when we booked our tickets.

The subject of the night was ‘Communicating Risk and Scientific Advice During Emergencies’, and due to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan only five days before, this is a topic which was, and remains, under the spotlight. We were eager to hear what Sir John Beddington, the UK Government chief scientist, and Mark Henderson, science editor of The Times, would have to say about it. But we would have to wait, as both had been delayed by work related to the crisis.

Mark Henderson was the first to arrive and opened by speaking about the difficulties in reporting this story.

When Sir John Beddington arrived, a ripple of excitement travelled around the room. Having had a tiring day (he’d been on the go since his appearance on the Today programme at 7.10am), he would have been forgiven for taking a moment to catch his breath, and maybe a well-deserved drink, but he was keen to get started. As all good speakers do, he opened with a joke. ‘April is usually the cruellest month for scientific advisors, in April 2009 there was swine flu; in April 2010 the volcanic ash. However, for me, in 2011, the yearly crisis had turned up a month early!’

He gave us an insight into the discussion at the time, and the scientific answers to the ‘what ifs’ the public, media and government were asking. On being called to give advice on what to tell British nationals in Tokyo he assembled the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – the collection of government scientists, agencies and independent advisors which are brought together in crises for their expert knowledge. Those who make up the advisory group work to establish the potential scenarios that could arise. There is a crucial difference between the worst case-scenario and most likely scenario, and ensuring that the distinction between the two is accurately reported in the media reports is important.

Sir John described how the process of putting a SAGE committee together was very open. He required people who could bring expertise, but also, ‘had a high IQ and low pomposity!’ He looks for people who try to challenge the consensus and to get as close to the scientific truth as possible. This ensures that the advice passed to the Prime Minister and the cabinet is of the highest possible quality. Sir John keeps a kind of ‘Science advice Yellow Pages’ up to date with experts who could help in likely future crises.

After about 30 minutes of discussion between Sir John and Mark, the discussion was opened up to the audience. A question from the floor: What did Sir John think that the role of science is in politics? Sir John responded, saying that ‘science is an important consideration, but is not often the dominant one.’ There are often other political and financial considerations which need to be brought into the equation. Sir John’s job is simply to get the most accurate scientific advice to the government, and let the decision-makers use it appropriately.

The evening continued with more questions from the floor which explored the potential impacts of the Japan earthquake and lessons to learn for future emergencies. Although many had been personally affected by the ash cloud, the fact that the Fukushima crisis was ongoing reinforced the reality of how important it is to be careful with presenting risk. Following a review earlier this year, he has openly admitted that things went wrong when dealing with the volcanic ash cloud. He explained that, as with all low probability, high risk situations, it is hard to know which ones to prepare for.

Seeing the news and hearing faceless acronyms like SAGE, it is easy to feel cut off from the machine of government and media. This was an opportunity to hear a personal insight into the struggles and strains of those whose job it is to deal with communicating risk, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

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