SRA Baltimore Delivers Three Outstanding Plenaries

About 850 members attended the 2013 Annual Meeting, featuring three thought-provoking plenary sessions related to risk governance and ethics.

In keeping with the meeting theme of “Risk Analysis for Better Policies,” all three Annual Meeting plenary sessions dealt with important aspects of this topic. The opening plenary on Monday morning, December 9, looked at how risk analysis informs policy making.

Risk and Policy Making

At the Monday morning event, panelist Luis Cifuentes, Catholic University of Santiago City, talked about risk-related issues in Chile, a country characterized by very uneven income distribution. While many public health risks are addressed by a well-established Health ministry, Cifuentes said, transportation policy is primarily driven by the costs and value of travel rather than accident rates or pollution levels.

Sir Mark Walport, Chief Science Advisor to the UK government, described the challenge of allocating finite resources among prevention, mitigation, management and clean-up, stressing that regulations need to be based on hazards rather than risks and that a clear distinction must be made between the two. Walport noted that UK agencies have formed a partnership to work together on natural hazards, both to predict them and to manage them.

Anne Glover, Chief Science Advisor to the European Union (pictured at left), spoke last. She talked about the differences between actual risk and perceived risk, noting that politicians are especially attentive to public perceptions – as in the case of GMOs. Yet climate change is likely the region’s biggest risk. Glover also stressed the need to consider rewards alongside risks in making policy decisions.

In response to discussion comments, all three panelists agreed that it is difficult to provide scientific advice to policy makers for a wide variety of reasons. Robin Cantor from the Berkeley Research Group and Ortwin Renn, Stuttgart University, chaired the session, with discussion led by Ragnar Lofstedt, Kings College London, and SRA President George Gray.


Ethics and Decision Making

Then on Wednesday, December 11, a second morning plenary focused on ethics and decision making in the face of risk. Chaired by Renn (pictured below, at right), this panel also featured three presentations, the first by author Sheri Fink, New America Foundation, who has taken a close look at the response to Hurricane Katrina in a New Orleans hospital setting in her recent book Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital. She talked about the stark ethical challenges involved, including allegations that health professionals had deliberately injected some patients with drugs to hasten their deaths.

Other speakers included Raina McIntyre and Joanne Travaglia, University of New South Wales, who focused on ethics in public health and the vulnerability of those without control.  Some people do not have hospitals available to them – an example of what they term “structural vulnerability” – while others are the victims of “epistemic injustice,” cared for by staff who do not have the training or equipment to provide treatment to disabled, elderly or other vulnerable patients.

Finishing out the session, Andreas Klinke, University of Newfoundland, discussed the pros and cons of applying the Athenian ideal of direct democracy to risk governance and policy. Broad participation in deliberation lends legitimacy to outcomes, but deliberation by everyone is “implausible,” Klinke argued. Policy development might benefit by combining three approaches: the involvement of epistemic institutions, stakeholder group deliberation, and general public participation following one of several available models.

Sally Kane, University of New South Wales, offered comments in the form of “Questions for the Risk Community.”

Risk and Development

Later that same day, plenary luncheon speaker Norman Loayza (photo in upper right) from The World Bank, Director of the World Development Report 2014, spoke on “Risk and Opportunity: Managing Risk for Development.” Loayza gave several examples of how the World Development Report series has had substantial impact, from reducing the fatalities due to cyclones in Bangladesh to increasing resilience in the face of international financial crises around the globe.

One example stressed the importance of an economic innovation orientation: In the case of farmers in India, rainfall insurance offered the chance to grow higher-priced but more delicate crops requiring more investment.

Many people around the globe are subject to multiple risks – employment, disease and financial risks, for example. Many of the most vulnerable live on only a few dollars a day. Risk management should seek to increase both prosperity and resilience, in Loayza’s view. Effective risk management should also stress proactivity, cost-effectiveness and prevention.

Loayza recommends a “holistic” approach involving shared responsibility and action from the household level up to the international level. Complex issues like climate change call for action from a “coalition of the willing,” representing an incremental approach to moving forward despite the inability to form an all-encompassing consensus.

In his closing remarks, Loayza recommended five principles related to risk governance: (1) do not generate uncertainty or unnecessary risk; (2) offer the right incentives; (3) take a long-run perspective; (4) promote flexibility within clear, transparent roles; and (5) protect the vulnerable, encouraging self-reliance and fiscal sustainability.

For the World Development Report 2014, click here: While primarily targeted at experts, this site includes educational tools and material aimed at more popular audiences.

Susanna Priest, SRA News Editor, with contributions by Sharon Friedman, Lehigh (pictures contributed by Sharon Friedman and David Drupa)