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Layers of Uncertainty

by Redazione FGB [1], 8 March 2012

On Monday March 5th I attended the third Science Technology Policy Crossroads symposium [2] at the Harvard University Science Centre. The symposium was entitled 'Layers of Uncertainty: Conversations on the role of uncertainty in science and technology policy', details are available from their website linked above.

The key note speech was delivered by Rear Admiral Ali Khan [3], Director of Public Health Preparedness and Response Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a retired Assistant Surgeon General.

Dr Khan addressed various issues in his speech relating to public health, within a framework of risk and risk assessment. He argued that risk assessment and any decisions taken upon conclusions drawn are bound by the decision rules that frame the debate. An example might be that the decision making rule could be anywhere between taking no action until a risk has been proven, to intervening as soon as risk is suspected. He stressed the influence of politics throughout the process, arguing that external influences and factors must be seen as running alongside any scientific understanding and advice.

His example of the SARS scare from a couple of years ago demonstrated the situation that decision-makers find themselves in. He explained that decisions are always made without a full body of evidence, and so interpretation of the evidence involved is paramount. In the case of the SARS breakout the WHO initially had a few reports from China of a poorly understood illness that lead to death through respiratory failure in a very short time. Several weeks after the intitial reports cases were reported in Vietnam and Hong Kong, and the WHO took the decision to issue travel warnings based upon this evidence.

The WHO were proved right, and Dr Khan showed how they were able to pinpoint the moment of contagion to a single floor in a Hong Kong hotel where a single Chinese traveler had passed on the infection to other people on the floor. These people then traveled onward taking the infection with them, to Canada, Australia, Vietnam and beyond.

He went on to discuss the stockpiling of drugs in order to treat similar outbreaks, and issues of how prepared a country can or should be. Cost plays a large part as different levels of preparation cut down supply time but at ever mounting expense, and if the drugs are not used they must be discarded at great cost to the tax payer. Many of his points reminded me of a post I wrote on this website entitled 'Ethical Decision Making during a Possible Flu Pandemic' [4], but Dr Khan's job involves decision-making well before any pandemic arises.

Dr Khan's speech was followed by a panel discussion led by MIT Dean of Undergraduate Education Dan Hastings. [5] The panel addressed many of the issues raised in the speech, with much of the conversation revolving around the perceived need to educate the general public, quoting the oft argued quest for a more scientifically literate society.

Sheila Jasanoff [6] intervened arguing that scientists should make more of an effort to communicate their work to wider lay audience, and should be exposed to the humanities' way of looking at the world during their university training. She went on to raise the issue of societal uncertainty in the face of scientific uncertainty, an issue I hope she will return to as its discussion was necessarily brief and worthy of greater detail.

Science Journalist Eli Kintisch raised a host of interesting points regarding the communication of science and how to widen points of contacts, citing his project aimed at involving artists and public figures to help the dissemination of scientific and environmental understanding. His emergency procedures card [7] for climate disaster dased upon the emergency card found on aeroplanes is a great example of using art to communicate scientific arguments.

Jon Beckwith [8] spoke about ethics and how students are exposed to ethical decision-making every day in the lab situation, and a look at his academic and social history as well as the courses he teaches at Harvard Medical School demonstrates what an interesting character he is.

The issues of uncertainty and risk have been addressed many times on the Bassetti Foundation website, the term risk used mainly in Danielle Navarra's writings and blog.

An article by Navarra [9] published in 2007 addresses the issues of the communication of risk in innovation and contains links to many articles contained within the website as well as a concise description of the different issues currently under debate.

Going back further Navarra has a blog post entitled 'Conceptualizing Risk; a theoretical and practical agenda' [10]in which he explains how Douglas, Beck, Giddens and Foucault have addressed the problem of risk.

In 2008 I myself posted an article entitled 'Without Risk there is no Progress' [11], a report on the work of the International Risk Governance Council.

The theme of uncertainty has been addressed in many articles, and is core to the idea of responsibility. In 2008 Nicole Lozzi published an article entitled 'Responsibility and Uncertainty; new perspectives upon responsible action' [12] in which she interviewed Maria Antonietta Foddai, Professor of the Philosophy of Law at the University of Sassari. An engaging read available in English or Italian.

Uncertainty is also a central topic of the EU published 'Taking European Knowledge Society Seriously' [13] report, translated into Italian by the Bassetti Foundation and presented to the public in February 2008 here at our Milan headquarters.

The theme also runs through Giuseppe Pellegrini's Bassetti Foundation publication entitled 'Technoscientific Innovation: Responsibility and New Models of Democracy in Science and Social Relationship' [14]. In this book the problem of uncertainty is very much tied to that of participatory democracy.

Uncertainty also plays a large part in scenario planning, as a look at the review of Daniel Erasmus's book 'The Future of ICT In Financial Services' [15] shows.

Finally, an article by Mariachiara Tallacchini entitled 'From Causality to Responsibility, Steps Towards the Unknown' [16] offers a technical analysis of how risk and uncertainty have been addressed in a 2001 European Governance white paper and a host of other publications.

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(Photo: uncertainty principle [17] by Mathieu Struck from Flickr)

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Links in this document:

  1. 1] http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/schedabiografica/Redazione FGB
  2. 2] http://stpcrossroads.org/
  3. 3] http://www.cdc.gov/media/subtopic/sme/khan.htm
  4. 4] http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/it/segnalazioni/2009/05/ethical_decision_making_during.html
  5. 5] http://web.mit.edu/aeroastro/people/hastings/
  6. 6] http://www.hks.harvard.edu/about/faculty-staff-directory/sheila-jasanoff
  7. 7] http://www.yaleclimatemediaforum.org/2012/01/the-art-of-eli-kintisch-making-climate-media-creative-in-the-extreme/
  8. 8] http://micro.med.harvard.edu/faculty/beckwith.html
  9. 9] http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/navarra/2007/02/towards_a_new_model_of_managem.html
  10. 10] http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/navarra/2004/06/conceptualising_risk_a_theoret.html
  11. 11] http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/focus/2008/07/without_risk_there_is_no_progr.html
  12. 12] http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/focus/2008/09/responsibility_and_uncertainty.html
  13. 13] http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/events/2008/03/science_and_governance_the_rep.html
  14. 14] http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/publications/2008/11/technoscientific_innovation.html
  15. 15] http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/it/rassegna/2009/05/a_case_study_in_scenarion_thin.html
  16. 16] http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/grasseni/2006/06/ancora_su_responsabilita_secon.html
  17. 17] http://www.flickr.com/photos/mathieustruck/114604639
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cc - photo by Mathieu Struck from Flickr
Read also: La società del rischio by Giuseppe O. Longo
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