Communicating Risk – Robin Grimes

In the second of our series of interviews about the media coverage of the Fukushima crisis, Professor Robin Grimes of Imperial College London discusses how  scientists approach putting across complex science in a short time, and the reactions that his appearances on television and radio have provoked.

So how did the media contact you?

Through the press office. I have certain media contacts that tend to talk to me anyway about anything nuclear, so they contacted me independently. But most of the television stuff has been through the press office here at Imperial, who are very, very good!

In the first few hours, you mentioned that you were unsure about the details of events. How hard was it to get information about what was going on?

I had a fairly good idea. The biggest problem was that the events were changing fairly rapidly. There’s such a rapid evolution of the engineering process that, although you know there are difficulties that will occur, you’re not able to predict when that will happen. So I had a quick interview with BBC world service, and I sat down and ten seconds before we were due to go on, they said ‘oh this is just coming in’ and that was the first of the hydrogen explosions. And it was like ‘OK, you’ll be able to comment on that then’. And then we went live.

So if you know that is likely to happen, how do you go about trying to put across the risk?

I think you just tell the truth. You can’t say ‘I don’t know’ in a flappy kind of way. You have to be able to give possibilities, and you try to do it from a number of different sides. But it’s difficult. Academics are at a tremendous advantage. I don’t receive any money for these appearances at all, so I can just tell it like it is. And I think that’s what people need to see, they need to see a calm, collected response.

What do you think of the reporting in general? Has it been quite measured or got out of hand in some sectors?

I don’t think it has got too out of hand actually. Actually people have been very friendly, very interested. I’ve learnt a few tricks about taking information in, because you always have two or three minutes before you go on, and so the person talks to you for a bit, and you go ‘by the way, this is the latest information’. They’re very intelligent people, and actually that helps them formulate the sort of things they want to ask you, so you know you can talk to them about it because you’ve just shown them the data.

So it’s been a smooth process from your point of view?

It’s been reasonably good actually, I have to say. But the only thing that allows you to do this is experience. You’ve just got to do it again and again. And there are some techniques that you get told through media training which are very useful. One is, ‘don’t answer a question you don’t feel like answering’. And that really empowers you under most circumstances. It’s such a simple thing, but actually it’s a very valuable thing.

It’s interesting that a lot of science reporters have been involved in the news coverage.

Yes, that’s right, including graduates from Imperial College! And they’re actually interested in the science, so again that helps. If you’ve worked with someone for a while, you know you can trust them, and if you can trust them, you know you can be reasonably open with them and they won’t try to stab you in the back, because they might get a nice little comment they can use just once. So again, that’s important in terms of getting the relationship.

Although you personally don’t get any funding from nuclear companies, many scientists in this area are. One of the criticism that’s been levelled at the coverage is that people who are funded by nuclear companies have an interest in downplaying the danger. Is that fair?

I think it’s inevitable. But there’s all the difference in the world, in my mind, between getting money that supports research, and getting money that goes into your bank balance. I don’t have to do nuclear research, I could do research on fuel cells, or on solar energy. And that’s a big difference from someone in the industry who’s paid a wage. And indeed, I’m director of the Rolls Royce UTC, which is a nuclear UTC, but I don’t personally get any money in my bank account. I actually could have, but I don’t want to.

Do you think any researchers who were a little wary about talking to the media?

Very much. A researcher spends a long time really polishing up a piece of work so that they totally understand and then they go out to bat against other researchers and conferences. That’s what we’re trained to do, and it’s a very measured, thorough approach.

Talking to the media is not. Talking to the media is much more akin to doing children’s science demonstration lectures, getting those ideas over in as simple a way as possible.

I hate the question ‘so do you think we should worry?’, because I don’t want to tell people whether or not to worry. I want to tell people the facts as they are so they can decide whether or not they want to worry. And I think that’s what scientist should be trying to do. Not that you can always do it, and in the heat of the moment. You’re tired, you’ve been doing this all day and you have to accept you will slip. People are going to pick you up on it and you just have to live with that.

Do you think the science in terms of that kind of information has been put across accurately, as it can be manipulated by certain groups?

It’s e impossible to get that over entirely that quickly, you just can’t do it. What you can do is help the process along, and hope that you help people be critical about what they see, so that they don’t get the wool pulled over their eyes by people who have a vested interest. You have to accept everything you do is incremental. But I think academics, despite their reluctance to talk to the media, are actually used to it. Because when you talk to your undergraduates, you’re never going to get all the information over, so that non-perfect dynamic is part of your job.

So once the information is out, you have to let it go?

You have to let it go, which is kind of hard, and you have to try to do better next time.

So you were expecting a backlash when you were talking to the media?

Yes.

That’s quite brave to go ahead and do it anyway.

Well, not really. One of the nice things about being an academic is that my career doesn’t depend on people. I’m not a politician, I’m not going to be hurt by people saying nasty things about me.

In terms of people consuming the media, do you think that academics come across as more trustworthy?

Yes, I do. But don’t you think that people who do that (put across information in a biased way), then get found out?

Hopefully!

I think they do. I think those sort of things come back to haunt you something terrible. I’ve certainly been sent emails. One classic one was ‘you said every day this goes on, things will improve. Now we’re seeing all these radiation leaks: you were wrong.’ So I did reply, I said, ‘the context in which I said that was to do with decay heat, in this regard we are now at this point in time, and in that point, I was completely right. You’re right that it’s no longer an applicable comment’, and put it into context for them. They probably never reply to you ever again, but hopefully that person will go, ‘OK, alright, now I understand’.

And as far as you’re concerned, that’s when you’ve done your job.

Yes, you’ve certainly done your job. And if only we had time to always do that job, and people could see that we’re really trying to engage, we’d all be in a much better place and we’d make good decisions. Isn’t that what academics are supposed to do? I don’t always do it and I wish I did, you know. You’ve got to accept you fall short.

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