Poor risk communication is tree-mendously worrying

I was born in Ipswich, Suffolk, and although I couldn’t wait to leave the place when I headed off to University, I have since come to love it in its own way. While Ipswich itself is a fairly bland place, my memories of the countryside around the town are pretty idyllic. I spent my 18th birthday having a ‘beach party’ on the shores of the River Orwell, and even now when I head back to Suffolk for a weekend with family I can’t wait to get out into the woodlands and onto the coast of East Anglia.

Sadly it was my home county that was one of the first to start losing its crop of Ash Trees to the fungal parasite Chalara fraxinea. But equally distressing: it seems the parasite is also going to ravage the finances of those who tend and manage Ash plantations for a living.

Unsurprisingly, emotions are running high, and for the second time in a few short weeks government officials are being criticised for their approach to risk management. The BBC have reported that one man, a Lincolnshire Ash grower named Simon Ellis, is hoping to sue the government for £200,000. Ellis says the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA), which represents growers like himself, wrote to ministers in 2009 warning them about the disease. They had spotted what it had been doing in Denmark and wanted a ban on imports of Ash to the UK.

Although the BBC say the government have ‘ruled out’ compensating Ash farmers, the HTA website indicates they will soon be meeting with Lord de Mauley, a Defra minister, to discuss the matter.

Although it may not be immediately obvious, the issue has parallels with the recent convictions of seismologists who advised the Italian Civil Protection Department about the likelihood of an earthquake at L’Aquila. In both cases there was a degree of scientific uncertainty. This makes decision-making very difficult, especially when political and financial issues are bound up with the decision. A ban on Ash imports from Denmark would be politically sensitive at any time, so it’s easy to imagine policy makers wanting ‘proof’ that it was really necessary.It’s a shame then that ‘proof’ is a complicated word. Is there any proof that a ban would have stopped the disease spreading? Could scientists have anything to say on the matter? Some are speculating that the fungal spores could have blown across the North Sea on the wind; in which case a ban on imports may have made no difference.

The Guardian has insisted that we don’t have enough experts to properly manage the situation, but would more experts really have made any difference? It’s hard to say. But surely the truth is that uncertainty and incomplete knowledge bases are the norm, not the exception in science. That doesn’t mean science is worthless to policy-makers, but we should remember that science doesn’t provide answers to ‘what should I do’ type questions – especially those tinged with political baggage. We need to understand that fact, and as Reiner Grundman has suggested, frank communication about the nature of risk would be a good way to start.

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