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Society for Risk Analysis Inducts Richard Wilson to the Pantheon of Risk Analysis

Feb. 25, 2019

The Society for Risk Analysis (SRA) inducted Richard “Dick” Wilson to the Pantheon of Risk Analysis. The Pantheon, established in 2008, recognizes luminaries and visionaries in risk analysis and serves to illustrate how the field contributes to the advancement of knowledge and public good.

Wilson was a founding member of SRA and a pioneer in the field of risk analysis. He spent much of his career as the Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics at Harvard University where he became an enthusiastic supporter of the Cambridge Electron Accelerator. He was well known for his work on nucleon form factors. He is the author of 935 published articles and papers, many of which are in the field of particle physics and nuclear risk assessment, and the author of eight books, including “Risk-Benefit Analysis” which is now in its second edition.

“With his extraordinary intellect, Richard was the first to bring a clear framing to a risk problem, to determine how a risk could be better understood by integrating logic and mathematics with data from diverse sources, and especially to highlight the importance of considering the risks that might be inadvertently increased through efforts to reduce the risk of initial concern,” said James Hammitt, Ph.D., professor of economics and decision sciences at Harvard University. “He was a great scholar, teacher, and public intellectual, giving much of his time to bring clarity and reason to public decisions.”

In 1991 Wilson began a career explaining the positive aspects of radiation use, as well as its risks and dangers. In doing so, he used the “hands on” style of an experimental physicist and became an expert on three nuclear accidents: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. He was the first American scientist to go to the Chernobyl plant and measure radioactivity levels, thereby exposing himself to the dangers.

He expanded his interests to other hazards, thereby helping found the field of risk analysis. His status as a leader in the field arose from the incorrect perception held by many that radiation was uniquely dangerous. His paper “The Daily Risks of Life” was reprinted in Reader’s Digest and the Farmer’s Almanac. Wilson was awarded the Forum Award of the American Physical Society (1990), the Distinguished Achievement Award from SRA (1993), the Dixy Lee Ray Award (2007) and the Andrei Sakharov Prize (2012).

“Richard, more than probably anyone else of his generation, brought the world to risk analysis, not just popularizing risk analysis for the world. He expressed evidence-based and profoundly moral ideas about issues ranging from the folly of burning coal to the rights of the Palestinians to the need for better health services for the transgendered. We debated technical issues once in a while, but it was difficult not to come around to his point of view—not just because of the strength of his arguments, but because of the obvious humanity behind them,” states Adam Finkel, Sc.D., CIH, clinical professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan.

“Dick had a knack for making the complex seem simple. When asked the purpose of risk assessment, Dick replied “to illuminate decisions.” When asked how, Dick said “by explaining the nature of the risk and its magnitude,” and then added “‘but this inevitably involves probabilities, which can be confusing, and must be compared with risks of ordinary activities to give them meaning,’” recalls John Evans, Sc.D., adjunct professor of environmental health at Harvard University. 

Wilson received a Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University, England, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences at the age of 34. He was also a member of the New York Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Physical Society, American Nuclear Society, Society of Toxicology and Society for Risk Analysis. SRA is giving this recognition posthumously following Wilson’s death on May 19, 2018 at the age of 92. 

Melanie Preve