The purpose of this blog is to provide a platform for commentary on science matters. The Office of the Prime Minister’s Science Advisory Committee is politically independent and will refrain from political debate.


From global to local: risks, science and technology

Our understanding of risks at global and regional levels has matured markedly since they first really came into public consciousness during the Cold War. We now recognize a broad range of risks that can have real impact on both the planet and its population. These range from the risks of climate change to pandemics. But the way in which science and technology can both generate and mitigate risk is far broader. The rapid but casual adoption of the internet and all that is associated with it has been a boon for communication and for many parts of personal and corporate lives. But as such technology has taken hold, there have been multiple and growing concerns from individuals about such things as loss of privacy. On the wider scale there is now international concern about the potentially devastating impact of cyber-attacks and so forth.

A recent report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) entitled Global Risks 2013 summarizes both the likelihood and impact of a number of global risks as perceived by the Forum’s experts. There is a simple graphical summary of its findings in February’s edition of the Scientific American (page 72) but the full report is well worth reading. This report is produced annually and what is interesting is how this year’s edition gives increasing focus to scientific and technological issues. An obvious issue is climate change and how humankind may or may not respond to it. What has also emerged is rising concern about unsustainable population growth and its consequences. There is comment that there may be hazards associated with various new life science technologies such as synthetic biology and artificial cognitive enhancement. The potentially very negative consequences of massive digital misinformation and indeed issues in the cyber-world are also given real focus in the report. This is also the topic of commentary in a recent article in the January 10 2013 issue of Nature.

No nation can afford to ignore risks, the need for hazard identification and risk management. Indeed, even considering global risks, while in an ideal world they would be addressed globally, it is clear that in general they must be covered off at national levels. The WEF report discusses some aspects of what is needed for national risk management and resilient systems, but New Zealand needs to put these ideas into the context of how nations and societies currently operate. The report assumes that a non-rhetorical approach can be taken to risk identification and management. However, this is difficult to achieve as risk has very different meanings to individuals, scientists and politicians. In general, people have not achieved a way to maintain dialogue about risk management that integrates such diverse perspectives and understandings. Yet if New Zealand is to both respond appropriately to the challenges it faces and take advantage of what science and technology can offer, a more intelligent and less reactive form of conversation must be created. Often a technology is confused with its application. Every technology has its upside and its downside – this has been the case ever since our ancestors co-opted fire and developed tools that could be used to obtain food. What has changed has been the scale of impact of technologies for good or for bad and changes in societal structure in which system 1 ‘fast and instinctive’ thinking (to use Daniel Kahneman’s terminology) operates and tends to dominate at a collective as well as an individual level. Indeed, that is the inevitable consequence of participatory democracy in a world where 5 second TV spots and 140 character tweets prevail.

Every decision we make as a country involves trade-offs – if taxpayers’ money is spent on one thing then there is less to spend on another. If there is the desire to protect ecosystems and environments then there are costs in terms of constrained use of these places for resource extraction. Yet at the same time there is understandable public and political expectation of better living standards linked to economic growth. What trade-offs must be made to achieve these differing ambitions and desires? Most will involve assessment of technology and risk and many will involve science and technology in their application. New Zealand’s future depends on risk assessment and management. It seems obvious to me that while ultimately decisions will always be political and societal, the more that objective data are used rather than rhetorical hand-waving, the more likely that both known and unknown challenges will be well accommodated.

 

 

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